The Weekend Wonk: Glaciologist Peter Doran on Michael Crichton and Crazy Uncle Bob

December 19, 2014

One of the distinguished experts we interviewed this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco was Peter Doran, a well known Antarctic researcher from  the University of Illinois. Dr. Doran described how his lengthy stays in the dry valleys of Antarctica can help us better understand how life may have, at one time, existed on Mars.

Dr. Doran discusses here the way his work has been misused by the climate denial community, including everyone from “crazy Uncle Bob” to, famously,  the late novelist Michael Crichton. Doran’s article refuting Crichton in the New York Times is must reading for everyone’s crazy uncle Bob.

Peter Doran in the New York Times:

Our results have been misused as “evidence” against global warming by Michael Crichton in his novel “State of Fear” and by Ann Coulter in her latest book, “Godless: The Church of Liberalism.” Search my name on the Web, and you will find pages of links to everything from climate discussion groups to Senate policy committee documents — all citing my 2002 study as reason to doubt that the earth is warming. One recent Web column even put words in my mouth. I have never said that “the unexpected colder climate in Antarctica may possibly be signaling a lessening of the current global warming cycle.” I have never thought such a thing either.


Glaciologist Peter Doran

Our study did find that 58 percent of Antarctica cooled from 1966 to 2000. But during that period, the rest of the continent was warming. And climate models created since our paper was published have suggested a link between the lack of significant warming in Antarctica and the ozone hole over that continent. These models, conspicuously missing from the warming-skeptic literature, suggest that as the ozone hole heals — thanks to worldwide bans on ozone-destroying chemicals — all of Antarctica is likely to warm with the rest of the planet. An inconvenient truth?

Also missing from the skeptics’ arguments is the debate over our conclusions. Another group of researchers who took a different approach found no clear cooling trend in Antarctica. We still stand by our results for the period we analyzed, but unbiased reporting would acknowledge differences of scientific opinion.

The disappointing thing is that we are even debating the direction of climate change on this globally important continent. And it may not end until we have more weather stations on Antarctica and longer-term data that demonstrate a clear trend.

In the meantime, I would like to remove my name from the list of scientists who dispute global warming. I know my coauthors would as well.

For the record, since the Times piece was published in 2006, multiple studies have shown increasing melt of ice sheets in Antarctica, and established that large parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet are now irreversibly committed to collapse.

10 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Glaciologist Peter Doran on Michael Crichton and Crazy Uncle Bob”

  1. Very nice talk. The overview effect is indeed a good place to start, as its the ultimate “stepping out of the box” a human being can do. The majority of our bad behaviour is generally due to us giving into the monkey brain, and really the only way to control this is to be able to allow the rational mind to get in the front seat more often. Mentally stepping out of the box and looking at oneself is typically what a psychiatrist will try to get a patient to do with anyone who have behavioural issues. Being self critical takes training and have to be kept up through your whole life as we are practically hard wired to give in to the monkey brain as often as possible.

  2. neilrieck Says:

    I am a huge fan of the works of Michael Crichton. Although highly intelligent and educated (Harvard Medical School), this is a man with personal demons.
    A few years ago, I was listening to a sci-fi book club on NPR where literary academics were discussing all the top authors as well as their works. When the publications of “Michael Crichton” where being discussed, one of the contributors mentioned that Crichton openly disliked scientists which is why the usual hero of his stories is a doctor who notices something all the scientists miss (example: Andromeda Strain). Or the scientists cause the problem (examples: Terminal Man, Jurassic Park). So here is the big question: did Crichton see anthropogenic climate change as just another topic where the doctor ( himself) could out-wit the scientists?

    • I believe its a common problem with popular fiction (and Crichton is no exception in this regard) that science is rather boring, and to make it interesting there must be a villain with exceptional scientific knowledge using science for bad purposes. You will notice that when good guys use science its often very mechanical devices as they have a very “tactile” feedback to the viewer that he can understand.

      Perhaps Crichton failed in physics at school and thus produced the villain in a white cape for his stories? 🙂

    • Tyson Adams Says:

      Crichton often had a character in his novels who was there to lecture the reader on the evils of science and scientific hubris. In State of Fear it was the most blatant and condescending, but you’ll notice it in most of his novels.

      So yes, he did have a heavy anti-science bent.

      But it should be recognised that John’s point is very valid as well. If you want narrative tension and to create conflict in your novel, then it has to be done somehow. Much of the science fiction genre is filled with the science doing bad stuff trope.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Oh, c’mon you guys.

        Crichton loved science. Every one of his books delights in it, and teaches about it. He made time travel, chaos theory, systems complexity, nano technology, cloning, etc fascinating and comprehensible to the common man.

        He was one of, if not THE, most important science communicators post Sagan. He just completely dropped the ball on AGW. One wonders if he was suffering from a chronic condition that clouded his judgement.

        • Tyson Adams Says:

          Re-read Jurassic Park and note my comments above and the character of Ian Malcolm. Then flip through to spot the same archetype in his other books.

          I agree that part of this it the techno-thriller and sci-fi tropes. But he was far from an advocate of science.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            I just think you have it wrong about Malcolm, who wasn’t anti science – he was pro Chaos theory. I thought what Crichton had to say about the stability of complex systems (versus simple ones) – which is part and parcel of Chaos Theory – one of the most interesting things in all his books. And useful to remember when we are talking about perturbations to our society that AGW is likely to cause.

            And I do not agree with you that the presence of such characters means the guy was anti science. There was plenty of admiration and wonder in Jurassic Park about the fruits of cloning, plenty of joy about paleontology, living animals, the lives of scientists and their discoveries. Scientists were usually the good guys in his novels.

            I do agree that he was wary of some scientists. He held onto his resentment of particular scientists involved in the eugenics movement, and used it to invoke a conspiracy theory about the science of AGW. Which is nuts, of course. I think if he had any resentment about science it was that science precludes the supernatural, and he talks a lot of nonsense in his autobiography about telekinesis and seeing auras.

  3. Awesome TED talk! Thanks for sharing, and I certainly hope Sir Branson takes up the call! Truthfully I’ve always thought Branson could be an excellent leader for getting the world to take action on climate change. He’s very successful, he appears to be approachable (at least that’s how he seems in the media), he’s attractive. The downside is he would be a target due to his lifestyle. But which corporate leader at his level would NOT be a target?

  4. alexsisxela Says:

    The idea of sending influential die-hard denialists into space is cute, but I think it underestimates the grip that an ideology has over the mind once that ideology has been attached to their public persona. The more fame and adulation and cash and all the rest of it you receive for holding a controversial and uncompromising stance, the more difficult it is to let go of the things that define that persona.

    We’re talking about people who (a) already probably have a far greater tendency than most to attach ideology to identity and (b) have reaped far greater social rewards than most for commitment to their public identity.

    It could work if you can tap into their persona rather than expecting it to be overshadowed. For example if they are already known and respected for doing unexpected things or shocking or shaking up their regular fan base. I don’t see that any of these ‘big red dogs’ really have the character for this – they rely on being outrageous in exactly the way their fans expect.

    As Doran mentions (a little euphemistically) at about 10 minutes in, sometimes you just have to wait for them to die. Meanwhile, erode their audience and their reputation and their backers.

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