Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Book Review: State Of Fear - Michael Crichton

This book reminded me of something I learned in school - the kid who gets first rank in class doesn't always know everything. Sometimes, at least initially, even he/she is surprised that he/she can do so well in academics. Over time, I developed some of my favorite "Life's Lessons" theories.
  • The brightest kid in class (according to the report card) does not know everything
  • He/She by any strech of imagination cannot be classified as "intelligent" based on academic performance alone.
  • The other kids are always in awe of this category of "bright" people.
  • The "bright" kids need not require facts to win a intelligence-based argument. Their reputation will take care of their victories.
  • Most students who support this "bright kid" do so blindly. Without veryfying the facts. For most people strongly belive that the "Bright Kid" is right and they don't want the truth to interfere with that belief.
  • The evaluation of the academic performances of the "bright kid" is done on merit initially and then it shifts to the "Auto Pilot" phase where the "Bright Kids" reputation begins to dictate the teacher's evaluation of his/her answer paper.
  • In other words, the teacher, at the beginning of the evaluation knows the paper belongs to the "Bright kid" and this knowledge leads to the belief that the kid will do well in the evaluation. Regardless of the facts this "target outcome" influences the evaluation to somehow meet the expected outcome.
Why I enjoyed the State of Fear by Michael Crichton, is because it deals extensively on two of my favorite theories
  • Reputation matters more than the truth.
  • Research agenda influences research outcomes.
According to Michael Crichton (Author of Jurrasic Park, Congo, Disclosure, Great Train Robbery) our science books were/are completely wrong. Global Warming is a hoax. A hype generated by organizations with an agenda. Michael Crichton is an author who writes fiction novels with an undercurrent of real scientific research. He is more of a scientist who presents his viewpoints through intense analytical arguments. His narration style is a cross between a litigation draft and an IEEE research paper.

The State of Fear, like The Five Patients ( or is it The Terminal Patient? ), is more non-fiction than fiction. The fictional elements of the novel merely serve as a medium to express Michael Crichton's research on this "dubious concept" called "Global Warming". The footnotes quote real research journals and the graphs and the arguments refer to research papers published in the real world.

Global Warming is a concept that we are all familiar with from 9th or 10th grade science syllabus. It is kind of shocking to note that the common man is capable of believing a carefully orchestrated concept without questioning its validity. Crichton quotes 2 other examples. One is a concept called eugenics, which proposed a theory that weaker races (like jews and some other colored races) were growing in population thereby diluting the stronger and more intelligent races. This led to weaker races being eliminated, sometimes through gas chambers, to maintain the high proprtion of the so called stronger race. The number of Dignitaries who seemed to have endorsed euginics is too staggering. Just about every who's who in the science and literary world seems to have strongly backed this theory ( and later hid in embarassment). Global Warming's popularity shows that people blindly believed whatever was published in the Media just because some famous names were quoted to back the concept (The reputation factor). Just to quote an example that comes to my mind is everybody on the street beliives Michael Jackson molested children or Mohd. Azharruddin accepted some bribe. No convincing evidence is required because we like to believe it.

Global Warming, briefly, is a phenomena where the temperature of the earth is purported to be on the rise because of the depletion in the Ozone Layer (apart from many other causes). The generation of Carbon-Di-oxide seems to be the major reason why this is happening. A common definition of Global Warming would look something like this " The term 'global warming' refers to the accelerated warming of earth's atmosphere that is believed to result from a buildup of one or more greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) due to human activities. Human factors that contribute to global warming include the combustion of fossil fuels, nuclear fission and forest burning. In Australia, continental average temperatures have risen 0.7oC between 1910 and 1999, and are expected to rise by 1.0 to 6.0oC by 2070 . In comparision, globally averaged air temperature is projected to rise by 2.5oC (with a range of uncertainty of 1.5 to 4.5 oC) by the year 2100 . To put a 2.5oC temperature change into perspective, the temperature difference between a glacial and an interglacial (i.e. intervening warm periods between glacials) is about 5-6oC ."

Do a google on "Global Warming definition" and you will get such a definition. What Crichton says through this book is that such a definition is one big fart. I especially loved the way he mocked at the die-hard environmentalist caricatures. People who have no idea about forests, landslides, atmosphere, wildlife, completely condemn industrialization using this tool called "Global Warming". The characters which represent the "There is no Global Warming" point of view, repeatedly seem to poke the pro-environmentalists with questions like " Are you a scientist? Are you a person even remotely educated in anything environmental". How true!( reminds me of the time when I asked the people who committed project schedules if they knew anything about programming or the technical aspects of the project) most of these so-called environmentalsts are movie actors, rich folks desparate to cling on to any agenda. It does give some social status, self-rightoeusness and moral satisfaction to imagine that we represent something noble. So these people blindly believe in and advocate the anti-global warming movement.

What are Crichton's own views on this subject? Although his conclusions at the end of the book are more "neutral" and "politically correct", from the book and the research material quoted in the book, it is evident that he is arguing that the "melting of glaciers" or the "increase in temperatures" are hyped. The statistics (like the definition above )pick one or two "convenient" examples to show an increase in global temperature. The truth is that the glaciers are actually expanding instead of shrinking. The temperature is actually decreasing in most places as opposed to increasing. The book wonderfully argues how little we know about the environment, let alone preserve it. It systematically exposes how incorrect almost all global climate changes predictions have been and how ignorant these "wildlife society" , "environment preservation society" kind of organizations have been in promoting a pro-environment approach. It significantly quotes all predictions of warming in the past and how inaccurate these predictions have been. It primarily exposes our ineptness in measuring anything environmental. It also deals with Crichton's pet subject - that human beings are too insignificant (actually more insignificant than termites) to cause any large scale damage to Planet Earth. I bought a similar argument of his in Jurrasic Park. The one in The State Of Fear is equally convincing. The book conceedes that some of the warming (like the warming in New York) is as a result of human activity. But he says it is more due to concretisation than anything else. The book argues that we are part of a general warming trend (in some places) that started since the 1850s. Since we werent pumping out CFCs in 1850s Global Warming in effect is a statistical fudge by "interested parties".

I do not know much about global warming. I never did anything pro-environment except throw a few cans into the right dustbin. My thoughts on this subject have been kindled, a s aresult of this book, but it is still inconclusive. The aspects of this book that gave me the kicks were assertions that

  • We dont know crap about environment
  • There is no such thing as "Leaving nature alone". Man has to interefere with nature because, to put it simply, he already has interfered and so is part of it. ( A wonderful example quoted was "if you want to prevent deforestation why dont you prevent the elimination of chicken/small pox. Both are anti-nature. why is one better than the other?". How true!
  • Any measurement or projection regarding temparature and climatic increases are completely inaccurate because we dont know how to predict anything about the environment. In short he says "an educated guess is still a guess"
  • All research institution that were set up to research "whether global warming is a real phenomena" will invariably conclude that global warming is indeed happening. Because that is the expected outcome . Because that is the outcome which has a lot of reputation and because that is the outcome that will gurantee research funds.
Yes! this book was a paradigm shift for me in terms of Global Warming. But it only re-enforces my belief that Michael Jackson was right when he said " it is not what is really true that is important. It is what the media says( with quotes from reliable sources) that is important. Not only important but whatever the media says becomes the truth too". Yes! Perspective is indeed reality. The number of people who died in Kosova is defined by the newspaper I read in the morning. The number is 250 if I read "The Hindu" and 320 if I read the "Indian Express". Both are "truth options". Whichever paper I read first becomes my reality and the latter becomes someone else's reality.

Apart from the interesting revalations on Global Warming, there is not much drama in the book. There are infact many long monologues about scientific issues concerning Global Warming. Some parts border on preachiness. There are logical loopholes in the plot and the end fizzes away like many other Crichton novels. But I guess its besides the point. Its an enjooyable read if you have time to spare. I did not have the luxury. It took me 4 months to complete the 567 pages and I paid a lot of money as library dues. Plus I had to re-read some parts(when I discontinued after long gaps) to get the context. The last 100 pages, I just wanted to get done with the book and save myself some money

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Two things
As I always say what happens in our indian class rooms - the so called bright kids getting all the due... is what happens in real world too.
These bright kids might not be actually intelligent, they sure seems to know some formula towards sucess - hardwork or some street smartness.
So they do shine when they go to job as well most of the time. It does not mean others don't, others do find the formula at some point of time.


Anu_K

Ram said...

It will be very interesting to get the perspective of a "bright" kid :-) Maybe I'll write one :-)

sambar42 said...

You clearly haven't outgrown your distrust (and dare I say, envy) of the 'smart kids'. Trust me, you aren't the only one.

I absolutely agree that the mechanisms that control Earth's weather are quite chaotic and that it might very well be impossible for us to figure them out. The weather patterns, and the temperature of the Earth might very well be a part of a massive cycle that we are powerless to control or even comprehend. The 'global-warming brigade' and the theory they propound might well be wrong.

Saying 'oh, you think that there's global warming only because your research goal was to find global warming' or that 'we believe what the media wants us to believe' is about as sophisticated as the creationists arguing that we think there was evolution only because our research goals are to prove evolution. Well, yeah, it is perfectly possible that we have all been suckered into believing that we are descended from apes when in reality we are part of a massive experiment being conducted by pan-galactic, hyper-dimensional aliens.

I remember that quote from Jurassic Park about how human beings are incapable of destroying the world. But you seem to have forgotten the rest of it :-) Indeed, we cannot destroy the world(short of having a Vogon Destroyer Fleet or a medium sized Death Star handy) the world will go on. But, we might destroy ourselves by making the world unlivable for us. And that is what the character says in JP(without the references to the Vogons and the Death Star of course).

Which brings us back to Global Warming. Now, the GW group might well be wrong in believing that Global Warming might destroy the world. But, I must say, I rather like the cure they are pushing. Lesser pollution? More environmental protection? More trees? Cleaner burning of fuels? Controlling population growth? I am seriously in support of all that, even if it is being pushed by the 'smart kids' with a misguided agenda.

Vaz said...

Have to agree with Sambar...

I definitly think that it'll do no harm to reduce pollution, plant more trees...

Hawkeye said...

sambar,

thanks so much for your comment. will reply only to this comment in full as i am rushing for a wedding reception :-) ( yoohoo food :-)). for now i will reply to just this part ( as i think the reply is flowing cogently now)

/* You clearly haven't outgrown your distrust (and dare I say, envy) of the 'smart kids'. Trust me, you aren't the only one. */

actually over time I have been specifically advocating these "categorization" of students. sometime before i wrote a full article on this in the "the hindu". I will post that link in good time

but the main point is.. some bloom much early on in school life. whereas some people bloom intellectually and emotionally ( confidence wise) at a later age. if they happen to be categorized by the student/teacher society as an average/below-average student early on, I strongly feel their progress is retarded by our society.

the emotional growth of future-bloomers is stunted further when they are constantly belittled by the clan that says "bright kid is right". whenever they oppose this bright-kid's views the common argument that is used against them is "you are envious of their success". This has proven to be an effective tool to prevent young researchers, scientists, innovators from expressing their views.

So when I vent out my frustrations againt the society's categorization of bright-kid. I am not actually saying anything against the bright-kid. But the surrounding entourage. This support-group have condemned themselves to a pathetic life of gloryfying this bright-kid and they can't stand some red-blooded dude challenging their opinions. So they keep the challenger down. it is this jalra-group i am against so much. not the bright-kid.

i just wanted to clarify this point. believe me its not envy. "distrust" certainly is a possibility ( because once u find out some hype is false then u constantly suspect any other hyped up thing).

but i like the fact that u are a MC fan as i am and wud love to reply to the other parts of ur comments... BUT!!! food comes first :-)

Hawkeye said...

typo in the first line...

/* actually over time I have been specifically advocating **AGAINST** these "categorization" of students */

phew..

sambar42 said...

Bharath,

For some reason, this seems to have become a discussion on schools and kids rather than global warming. Lots of heat too. :-)

Anyhow. I agree with your concept that our schools tend to overly emphasise the toppers over the rest of the junta. And, in time, the toppers tend to accumulate their fan following. Yep, the non-toppers do get screwed in the deal, especially by unsympathetic teachers.

But man, this sort of thing happens in every group of people. In some societies, it's cash, in some it's smarts, in some, it's athletic ability. It's normal part of societal dynamics. There will be an elite in each society. The question is how the elite is formed and how it behaves. Atleast the elite kids in school earn their place in open competition at some level rather than, for instance, medieval society where you were the elite because you were born into it :-)

I think that the teachers can play a very postive role in how this elite gets defined and how they are treated. That would cause a huge change in how all the students handle life.

But, I still fail to see what Global Warming has to do with this.

Hawkeye said...

/* But, I still fail to see what Global Warming has to do with this. */

oh! I did not explain this in the proper context. my bad! unfortunately i have to cover many angles when talking about this subject and so you may find me digressive or even worse "politically correct". sorry for that too. again i am not trying to be emotional, i am trying to be as logical as possible.

Acccording to the book Global Warming was a concept brought about by the elite (read as bright-kid). The funding/backers had so many top names supporting this concept that any rebel scientist would be considered an out cast if he called out GW.

The way the book explains some top names endorsed global warming without bothering to check the facts and the way "entourage" supported it again and again without checking the facts reminded of my school time experiences. if GW is really non-factual GW is taught as a fact (like bohrs atom model etc) in science books. That is the level upto which the "elite society" can propagate falsehood.

/* Atleast the elite kids in school earn their place in open competition at some level rather than, for instance, medieval society where you were the elite because you were born into it :-)
*/

I get your point :-) Again ... to be politically correct..the young-scientist who rebels in this book is also a bright-kid. so i am not advocating againt bright-kids.

my point is more towards giving a kind ear to everyone (even if they contradict long held theories) and also making everybody believe that they can be a bright-kid if they want to be and that bright-kid is not a birth right but an acquired status.

on a more advanced note - I and you would have laughed at MC if he didnt substantiate his claims with facts. so to be even more politically correct - merely being a rebel isn't gonna get you anywhere also.

Hari said...

Reminds me about the marketing people in my company :)

They sure seem to fit the "bright" kid category and most of teh time have no idea about what they are dealing with BUT are believed more by the mangement then us engineers :-| and even wose dont try to understand what we have to say most of the time !!

Hari said...

" it is not what is really true that is important. It is what the media says( with quotes from reliable sources) that is important. Not only important but whatever the media says becomes the truth too".

- Very True ! The media is certainly powerful !

remember sydney sheldons book "The Best laid Plans"

WYRIWYB - What you read is what You believe !

expecially if have read it from cnn.com or bbc.com :-|

Hawkeye said...

Anu_K,

my senti ments exactly

Ram,

we need the perspective of bright kid ...write on :-)

Suresh Ramani said...

Belief is NOT the truth .. it is anything but the truth. (for ex:- u don't say I believe I have two hands) .. when IT becomes the truth it ceases to be a belief ..

we give way too much importance to "belief" .. sadly evolution has not come around to deal with it yet ..