- "Aliens Cause Global Warming".
Crichton praised the ideals of science and the integrity expected from the scientists. He criticized
- the dangerous mixture of science and politics
- using the "consensus" as an argument, although consensus belongs to politics, but not to science
- tricks pretending that the existence of a mathematical formula justifies knowledge about a subject that is clearly seen to be uncertain
- holding on to popular notions, long after definitive, reproducible observations had proved these notions wrong
- refusing to examine new research which overturns existing theories and humiliating scientists that are politically inconvenient
Crichton may be a highly successful novelist, but otherwise he can't hide that he's a hard scientist that just happens to earn money as an artist. His degress are from anthropology and medicine, but he could clearly earn other degrees, too. He had to do a lot of research in science and technology before he wrote any one of his technothrillers. His essays are very rational. They are based on purely scientific approach to the questions. He's able to deal with a lot of sources and references.
This speech is no exception. He first explained that the only meaning of some equations in science is to express our prejudices using the language of mathematics. His first example is the Drake equation that was proposed to calculate the chances of finding extraterrestrial civilisations but whose all variables are completely unknown; in Crichton's opinion, the Drake equation was the first modern example how scientifically sounding arguments were used to argue that we know something that is clearly unknown. This extraterrestrial topic has also led, via many twists and turns, to the global warming theory - which is why he chose the title.
He also points out many examples of theories that were widely believed to be true but eventually have been discredited. The goal is to demonstrate that the record of "consensus" in science is pretty poor. One such an example is the so-called nuclear winter and similar predictions that nothing would grow in Hiroshima 75 years after the nuclear attack; the reality was that watermelons were grown there already in the following year.
Other examples he examines, such as puerperal fever, pellagra, and continental drift, are examples of traditionalists holding onto a "scientific consensus" instead of doing real science. The "consensus" believed that pellagra was caused by a germ, and on the contrary puerperal fever was not. The truth was just the opposite and its advocates could not convince others that they were right.
Another example is Wegener's theory of continental drift that claimed that the continents used to be connected to a single pre-continent. Even though every schoolkid can see that his theory was correct (just by observing how Africa and America fit together), his theory has been ridiculed by the "scientific consensus" for 50 years - in fact even 25 years after his death: most geologists simply did not believe that a Wegener-like mechanism could be possible. They thought that there could not be any force that makes the continent "plow".
They were wrong. Although Alfred Wegener could not get all the details straight (he was talking about moving continents, instead of moving plates which also counts the regions of the ocean), all the major ideas - and many details - in his theory of continental drift were correct. In fact, some facts about the mechanism necessary for the continents to move are unknown even today.
He was one individual who was trained in a very different field of science (astronomy and perhaps meteorology) - nevertheless he became the "Darwin of geology" or perhaps "Hubble of geology". He showed that Earth and its map were very far from being static and the different objects (continents) may have come from the same source (supercontinent), much like Darwin did this for the species and Hubble for the Universe. Obviously, the climate scientists have a very hard time to appreciate that one does not have to get an ID that identifies him as a geologist (or climate scientist) in order to become the most important geologist (or climate scientist) of the century.
More generally, Crichton explains that the greatest scientists in history were great exactly because they broke with the consensus in the right way: reproducible and verifiable results of a single scientist are enough. That can't be shocking for a physicist because the history of physics is filled with breakthroughs that were often made by one person, and this person was sometimes ridiculed by the majority. I think that the physicists have a much better understanding of the fact that "consensus science" is an oxymoron - better than the climate scientists, for example, simply because "consensus" is not a scientific argument. (It can only be a sociological pseudo-argument useful for the people who don't follow the subject well, but if a whole culture starts to rely on such sociological pseudo-arguments, the culture ceases to be scientific.) Of course, one of the reasons why the physicists understand these things better is that the truth in physics is much more well-defined.
Crichton recounts the claims about second-hand smoke, about which a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was "committed to a conclusion before research had begun", and had "disregarded information and made findings on selective information". He recalls that the negative impact of second-hand smoke had been vastly exaggerated.
Crichton points out that it is unacceptable to replace honest scientific research and its conclusions by conclusions that are driven by the will to support a specific policy. Sometimes such a mixture of science and policy may "look" desirable, but more in average we get various Holocausts, eugenics, lysenkoisms, and so forth.
He recounts dire predictions about the environment which never came to pass due to technological advances no one had foreseen. For example, in the 1960s Paul R. Ehrlich predicted mass starvation by the 1970s. When that didn't happen, he again predicted mass starvation for ten years later; that didn't happen either. He similarly twits Carl Sagan for predicting ecological disaster from the Kuwaiti oil fires (based on computer models of the nuclear winter scenario), and complimenting Sagan's rival on global warming, retired scientist Fred Singer, who predicted wind would sweep away the smoke. When Singer's prediction came to pass, nuclear winter lost credibility in the eyes of the public - and not just the general public. But these apocalyptic theories never die; much like Jehovah's Wittnesses, their advocates just change the doomsday date every time their prediction fails.
Crichton also shares the opinion of Richard Feynman that a blind belief in computer models became a new kind of disease.
He also explains that it is completely irrational to predict which problems will be important in 2100, much like it would be ludicrous to buy a stock that is claimed to be profittable in 2100, especially from a person who can't predict what will happen tomorrow (like with the weather). To substantiate his point, he considers hypothetical people in 1900 who are trying to predict the problems that would become important in 2000 - this is a gedanken experiment that I always liked to make when I argued that it is nonsense to plan the civilization for more than 30 years into the future.
The people in 1900 did not know the computers, nuclear energy, airplanes - and Crichton enumerates roughly one hundred of discoveries of the 20th century. This portion of his speech had to be very funny, especially because the last 50 entries are abbreviations such as HTML, EEG etc. Consequently, their predictions about 2000 would have been ridiculous: they would worry about a sufficient number of horses in 2000, the questions what to do with all the horseshit, and similar "serious" problems extrapolated from 1900 to 2000.
Within the section about global warming, Crichton asserts:
- "No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world."
Crichton also investigates some postmodernist claims that science is just another tool to gain a political power. He argues that in the case of the global climate, this statement is unfortunately less absurd than what would be appropriate. Well, it's because science is not done properly. To prove his point, he shows that the "mainstream" scientific community behaved much like the Catholic Church during the Inquisition in the case of Bjorn Lomborg and his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Suddenly it was not necessary to justify the criticism of Lomborg by rational arguments. Crichton was disappointed to learn that the Scientific American played the role of mother Church in the case against the "heretic" Lomborg.
Finally, Crichton proposes possible policies to save science and separate it from politics once again. The scientists should be paid by an agency that is funded by the corporations, the government, as well as the individuals - so that no one knows who funds him. The same experiments should be normally done at least by two groups. And finally, there should be different teams that propose an experiment; teams that perform it; and other teams that evaluate it.
Well, that's a great idea, but I'm afraid that if this climate science is gonna be done with the same people with the same bias, the organizational changes won't improve too much.