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Checking Crichton's footnotes

MICHAEL CRICHTON'S latest novel, ''State of Fear'' (HarperCollins), arrived with near-perfect timing. Even as real-world tsunamis slammed coasts across the Indian Ocean, here was a book in which radical eco-terrorists plot to douse California with fake ones--all to convince the public to worry about global warming and the disasters it can cause.

But if Crichton's story-line of a vast environmentalist conspiracy didn't impress literary reviewers, the novel came festooned with footnotes aimed at convincing readers of his scientific bona fides. Seeking to debunk the notion that human-caused global warming should worry us, Crichton allows his hero, Richard John Kenner--an MIT professor of geoenvironmental engineering who battles the eco-terrorists across the globe--to instruct various less-informed personages in the basics of climate science. During these conversations, Crichton provides actual scientific citations to back up Kenner's contrarian arguments. As he intones in his epigraph, ''Footnotes are real.''

But are they? Certainly Crichton's numerous citations refer to actual scientific publications. But in many cases, they also reference the work of scientists who accept the mainstream scientific view that human greenhouse gas emissions fuel global climate change.

''It's such a transparent literary device that Crichton uses,'' says Tom Wigley, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who's cited in the book. ''He makes the enviros out to be dummies.'' And Wigley isn't the only one surprised by the nature of his cameo.

The Kyoto Protocol. Toward the end of the novel, Kenner lectures another character on the futility of the Kyoto Protocol, which requires participating nations to adopt binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. ''The effect of Kyoto would be to reduce warming by .04 degrees Celsius in the year 2100,'' he says. ''Four hundredths of a degree.'' When another character disputes this claim, Kenner promises, ''I can give you the references.''

Tom Wigley, author of a 1998 article Crichton cites to back up this point, has complained previously that others have misused his research to undermine Kyoto. While that paper did indeed find that the treaty would have a relatively small long-term effect, Wigley has subsequently warned that his analysis ''assumed that Kyoto was followed to 2010, and that there were no subsequent climate mitigation policies.'' The point of the paper was not to bash Kyoto (which goes into effect internationally on February 16) but rather to demonstrate that it represents only a first step toward climate stabilization. ''Once we've done Kyoto we're obviously going to do other things,'' says Wigley.

The Glaciers of Kilimanjaro. Similarly, Kenner highlights the case of this famed African peak--a favorite of climate-change skeptics--in the process of debunking concerns that global warming is causing glaciers to retreat. Kilimanjaro has melted ''because of deforestation,'' Kenner says, not global warming: ''The rain forest at the base of the mountain has been cut down, so the air blowing upward is no longer moist. Experts think that if the forest is replanted the glacier will grow again.''

Again, Crichton supplies references. But UMass-Amherst climatologist Douglas Hardy, a coauthor of the 2004 paper on Kilimanjaro cited, says Crichton is distorting his work. Crichton is doing ''what I perceive the denialists always to do,'' says Hardy. ''And that is to take things out of context, or take elements of reality and twist them a little bit, or combine them with other elements of reality to support their desired outcome.''

For example, while the case of Kilimanjaro does seem more complicated (with factors like drier conditions and less cloud cover also implicated in its glacial retreat), Hardy notes that for other glaciers, especially in tropical latitudes, ''the link is very clear between changes in tropospheric temperature and [glacial retreats].'' And even in the case of Kilimanjaro, Hardy adds, climate change may be playing a role.

As for the notion that replanting the forest at Kilimanjaro's base will help the glacier to grow again, Hardy says: ''The forests need replanting for many reasons, but I think that [Crichton's] idea is preposterous, without some larger-scale changes.''

Atmospheric CO2 Levels. Here, at least, Crichton seems aware that he's building his case on the backs of scientists who don't agree with him. In a cross-examination scene early in the novel, one character who has been raising doubts about human-caused climate change observes that the data she's citing have all been ''generated by researchers who believe firmly in global warming.'' Crichton then cites a paper by David Etheridge and his colleagues at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, which concerns changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the last 1,000 years.

But Etheridge says he objects to this characterization of his so-called beliefs. ''There is little indication for Crichton of what beliefs I may or may not have,'' he said via email. ''My work as a professional scientist allows me only to produce and deal with evidence, not beliefs.''

The Big Picture. In Crichton's defense, those seeking to counter consensus scientific conclusions on climate change--and to use published evidence to support their own views--face an uphill battle. Naomi Oreskes, a science studies scholar at the University of California, San Diego, recently analyzed more than 900 scientific articles listed with the keywords ''global climate change,'' and failed to find a single study that explicitly disagreed with the consensus view that humans are contributing to global warming. While such literature may exist, it appears minimal.

That hasn't stopped Crichton from expounding his views in recent speeches, including a talk on ''Science Policy in the 21st Century'' held late last month at the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution's Joint Center for Regulatory Studies in Washington, D.C. In an appendix to ''State of Fear,'' Crichton frets about ''Why Politicized Science is Dangerous.'' But he may himself have provided a case study.

Chris Mooney, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., is writing a book about the politicization of science. 

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