Top critical review
The Hyperactive Media Climate
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on April 24, 2006
If you think you know what global warming is, just what kind of threat it poses, and what should be done about it, this book may be an eye-opener. Crichton spins an eco-terrorist thriller around some of the research that has been done over the last forty years in this area, a tale that attempts to keep you interested long enough to at least look at some of the items he presents.
As a story, I found a lot of it to be quite far-fetched, with its basic premise of a group of people who will do almost anything to `prove' that the threat is real and immediate, merely to keep their funding for `research' and litigation against the `nasty polluters' coming in. Add a story line that has a very small group of people combating this group, and the net reads almost like some of the `super-thriller' comic-book stories from the forties. Characterization for most of the players in this game is pretty thin, and it is not helped by having many of them spout page after page of various arguments against the generally accepted ideas behind global warming. There is an obviously notable feeling to this that many of the scenes and chapter endings were written expressly for a Hollywood blockbuster thriller, which does lead to page-turning, but doesn't help at all in the suspension-of-disbelief arena.
But despite this book's major failings as a novel, the information presented here is well worth looking at and doing some serious thinking about. From `little' things like just how do you measure the `mean global temperature' (given that the data is subject to changes in measuring points and methods, large areas of the world such as Antarctica and Africa didn't even have measurements taken until fairly recently, and the known problem of cities heating up their local area) to whether or not the majority of the world's glaciers are receding or advancing, Crichton presents a host of data that at least should make you take a second look at `global warming' as presented by the media. The book is replete with graphs and has the source material for all these items footnoted, along with a long bibliography at the end of the book - sources that show that there is still a large amount of debate amongst reputable scientists about the extent of the danger and how much of the observed changes are due to human activities.
Crichton blasts computer simulation models of the Earth's climate, pointing out that the climate is at the very least a poorly understood non-linear chaotic system, and using the output data of simulation models to cry `danger' is poor science, when no two models even come close to each other in predicted effects. However, Crichton does his own arguments a very large disservice at one point in the book: He has one of his characters disparage such models because of a prediction made by one such model that called for a three tenths of a degree Celsius rise in temperature by a specific date, and the measured value was only one tenth of a degree. He states that such a model is extremely suspect because the prediction was off by `300%', and presents an analogy to an airline flight that the pilot estimated would take three hours, and then was actually completed in one hour. Such reasoning is totally wrong - a better analogy would be if the pilot predicted that the flight would take three minutes longer today because of strong head-winds, and then actually arrived one minute longer than the `normal' flight time of three hours - the point being that the percentage error in prediction needs to measured in terms of the total time of the flight (or the temperature change between 290.1 and 290.3 degrees Celsius as measured from absolute zero). Even better would be a discussion of the statistical significance of such a variation, but this would probably be too much math for the average reader - but this type of `simplification' is something that seems to be ever present in Crichton's books, which, while often obviously well researched, have `explanations' of the science that have deep, glaring holes that severely detract from the message.
The rest of Crichton's message, however, one of the dangers of `science-by-popular-media' and legislation, is very valid. It does seem as if our society spends entirely too much effort and resources on `possible' dangers, while ignoring other more immediate problems and dangers. But it is also true that science can warn of dangers in time to actually do something about them, and as most people have neither the training nor inclination to absorb the actual technical papers, the media serves a proper role in `popularizing' the information in a manner that they can understand.
As a novel, this only rates a two star, as there is too much message wrapped around a difficult to believe scenario. As a warning against blindly accepting media popularizations of scientific theories, it rates a four.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)