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Michael J. Crichton ’64 may have been an academic all-star as an undergraduate, but Crichton—once a summa cum laude anthropology concentrator—gets failing marks from Harvard professors for his latest novel-cum-political rant, State of Fear.
Crichton, who also holds a medical doctorate from Harvard, once served on his alma mater’s Board of Overseers, but now he serves as unscrupulous gunslinger for the anti-environmentalist right wing of American politics.
Crichton has already adopted a bunker mentality. “We’re in the middle of a war—a global war of information versus disinformation,” he writes. “The war is fought on many battlegrounds. Newspaper op-eds. Television reports. Scientific journals. Websites.”
And now, it seems, on the literary front.
Crichton, the ideological hit-man, is less accurate when it comes to the facts.
In his latest novel, the legendary author of such bestsellers as Jurassic Park takes on the controversial issue of global warming in a scientifically untruthful manner. Ultimately, State of Fear becomes little more than a ringing endorsement for the environmental policies of the Bush administration.
What makes Crichton a qualified expert on environmental policy? After three years of reading scientific texts on the issue, Crichton claims he discovered that global warming is an altogether naturally occurring phenomenon that has little to do with human activity— and perhaps nothing at all to do with the effects of fossil fuel burning or air pollution.
Five years of research by several hundred scientists on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tell a different story. Global temperatures have increased by approximately 0.5 degrees Celsius in the last half-century. And according to the IPCC’s 2001 report, “most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities.”
The jacket to Crichton’s book hails the author’s “unique ability to blend scientific fact with pulse-pounding fiction.” Somewhere in the mixture, the facts got lost.
“The excerpts I have seen from the novel and from its appendix suggest that Crichton has an extremely superficial acquaintance with climate science and that most of his assertions about the subject are wrong,” says John P. Holdren, the Heinz professor of environmental policy at the Kennedy School of Government.
To provide documentation for his tirade on global climate change, Crichton added an
appendix of “author’s notes” to relay some of the research which has led him to
doubt the science behind global warming claims. “Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made,” Crichton writes. “Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon.”
But Professor of Biological Oceanography James J. McCarthy begs to differ. “It is quite
surprising to me that Crichton, who was trained as an MD before he turned to writing science fiction, imagines that he has been able to develop in his spare time an understanding of climate science that is superior to that of the hundreds of full-time scientists working in the field,” McCarthy says. He notes that reports from the highly-regarded IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences “contradict Crichton's assertions on practically every point.”
And if Crichton does want to challenge the scientific consensus, “he should have put his ideas forward in a scholarly treatise that could have been critiqued and debated as such,” McCarthy says. “Instead, all we have is a novel.”
An in keeping with Crichton’s characteristic style, the novel is a tangled web of romance and murder that takes readers on a whirlwind tour that hits Antarctica, the Solomon Islands, and countless less exotic destinations (including fair Cambridge). Hero John Kenner is an MIT professor who sets out to stop eco-terrorists from carrying out their nefarious plans.
Amidst countless plot twists, Crichton takes swipes at environmentalist groups—which he says are exaggerating the dangers of global warming—and at the scientific community, which he says is not conducting research “in a humble, rational and systematic way.”
But humility has never been Crichton’s strong-suit. He condescendingly writes that “public education is desperately needed.”
That education should begin with Crichton himself. Four decades after graduating from Harvard, it might be time for Crichton to head back to school.
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