Sunday, February 19, 2006

Debunking Michael Crichton's State of Fear.

Reading about Bush's White House chat with Michael Crichton regarding his book State of Fear and having heard more and more from people about the book, I feel I must do something to address the errors and outright falsehoods in his book. With much help from Gavin Schmidt from and others, let's look at the central claims of Crichton's work and see how it holds up to scrutiny.

One claim is that while carbon emissions were rising, temperatures from the 40s to the 70s were falling. This argument completely leaves out other climatic forcings. Those of you old enough (or well read enough) will know that in many industrialised the 1970 ushered in a new era of environmental regulation. Many countries saw the enacting of clean air laws which saw an immediate and significant drop in atmospheric aerosol levels. This is very significant because aerosols “dim” or cut down on solar radiation causing a cooling effect. And there are other forcings that need to be full considered before a definitive answer can be given. For example, changes in land usage, long-term oceanic cycles, changes in solar output, and volcanic aerosols could all have an effect. When we consider the current warming, however, no model has been able to explain it without including CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases.[1]

Next, Crichton makes much ado about his selective use of weather station data. Considering the long-term cooling trend at Punta Arenas in southern Chile, one of the heroes in Crichton’s book exclaims “There’s your global warming.” I honestly cannot understand how Michael Crichton, a well-educated man, can mistake one city for an entire globe. Cooling at Punta Arenas you say? Yes, ok. But warming at Harrow, Canada, warming at Mito, Japan, warming at Swindon England, etc. Global warming means an increase in the mean global temperature, not an increase in the mean temperature of Punta Arenas (or not) and Punta Arenas only. What he did was take (very) selective data that fit his hypothesis and ignored most of the planet to do so. Had Crichton looked at the airport in Santa Cruz, Chile, he would have found a long-term cooling effect. [2] But I should not be too harsh because his book is fiction pretending to be science, not science.

Another stop on Crichton’s local equals global tour is Antarctica. On problem with Antarctica is the lack of long-term data. The Larson-B ice shelf “has warmed substantially,” but data on the entire continent is scarce, so any long term claim is just guesswork.[3] Furthermore, Antarctica is, as many know, not the entire globe. It is one region. There is no way around it, mean global temperatures have risen.

Crichton, showing ignorance of the global warming debate, attacks Dr. James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress saying that it was “overstated by 300 percent.” We can ask a simple question: Did Dr. Hansen do this? And we get a simple answer: No. What did Dr. Hansen do? After he testified, he and several colleagues published a paper that offered three scenarios. Scenario A has CO2 rising exponentially. Scenario B has an increase following historic trends with a large volcanic event occurring as well. And Scenario C arrests CO2 increases at the year 2000 with a large volcanic event occurring. Readers will recall the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. In the end, Scenario B was the closest to the unfolding record. In other words, Dr. Hansen’s predictions were quite good and his testimony to Congress showed only the predictions in Scenario B. [4]

Where did Crichton go wrong? He relies on Patrick Michael’s 1998 testimony to Congress in which he conveniently deleted Scenarios B and C from Dr. Hansen’s work. In other words, willful deception on Michael's part. [5]

Crichton tries to make the claim that the perception of global warming is due to climatologists worldwide being to stupid to know about the thermal island effect of cities. No. Wrong. Climatologist David E. Parker published a piece in Nature in 2004 showing that this is not the case. [6] And perhaps the reader will have heard of a region called the Arctic which has no urban areas yet has undergone startling warming. [7]

Crichton raises the urban myth that "in the 1970's all the climate scientists believed an ice age was coming". Again, no. Wrong. If you have the inclination, you can read through the debunking of this claim by climate modeler William Connolley. [8]

Crichton pooh-poohs sea level rise in his book. That’s an odd thing to do with melting icecaps and glaciers. [9] No, sea level is increasing, though it is not perceived to be everywhere. Much of the northern hemisphere is still literally rebounding from the last ice age. Some other areas are subject to tectonic forces that cause the land to rise. Interestingly, the data Crichton offers in his footnotes is evidence of a rise in sea level. [10]

In yet another case, Crichton cites a paper saying that it claims Kilimanjaro is melting because of deforestation, not global warming. The problem is that his source does not say this at all. [11] Douglas Hardy, who Crichton cites says Crichton “the denialists always to do” which is to take things out of context, or take elements of reality and twist them a little bit, or combine them with other elements of reality to support their desired outcome.'' [12]

In a sane world, Crichton's work would be seem for what it is: a work of fiction and nothing more. Unfortunately, however, we live in a world where false ideas are not only influencing the media, but also Congress and the White House as well. If there is any solace, it is that the deniers must turn to a work of fiction to try to support their claims. Unfortunately, important ears are listening to those claims.