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for people who care about the West

Science vs. science fiction — get it straight

  Science and scientists are taking quite a beating in the public opinion department these days. Sometimes there’s a good reason for it. Consider the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

Every year, the geologists’ association honors someone "for notable journalistic achievement in communications contributing to public understanding of geology." The oil geologists gave Michael Crichton their "Journalist of 2006" award for his latest book, State of Fear. But Crichton is not a journalist — not even close to one. He produces fat thrillers like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain.

In his novels, Crichton uses the standard science fiction method of taking a tiny kernel of truth and then blowing it up into fantasy. This is the time-honored method that gave us the "dilithium crystals" that fuel Star Trek’s USS Enterprise and the "endoplasmic slime" that globbed Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. The end result may sound somewhat convincing, but is actually just pure hokum. And there’s nothing whatever wrong with it — in the field of fiction.

Crichton, however, goes on to decorate his pages with official-looking footnotes, with all the stylistic precision of a high-school valedictorian.They’re impressive, if you know nothing about the sources he cites. If you do, they disintegrate.

The thing to remember about Crichton is that he’s a novelist — a writer of fiction — and not a particularly profound writer at that. His novels are perfect beach reading; you can enjoy them with a mai tai buzz, or read them the next morning to take your mind off the hangover.

State of Fear is a typical lightweight thriller. The plot involves evil environmentalists who peddle hype about global warming to make money. This would be fine if Crichton were just out to amuse us. But no. He wants to be taken seriously as a social critic. He is trying to debunk the large and growing body of research that shows, all too clearly, that carbon we pump into our atmosphere is warming our temperatures. A prime source of that carbon is the petroleum we pay petroleum geologists hefty sums to extract from the ground. And now Crichton has received an award from the petroleum geologists. Quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?

In some circles, you see, Crichton’s pseudo-science is taken seriously. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, says he was impressed by the voluminous footnotes in State of Fear. There’s a lot of "non-science" around global warming, he says: "In fact, let’s call it science fiction." He has the actual science confused with the science fiction. And he’s not the only one: Crichton was invited to the Oval Office to discuss his novel with President Bush.

I don’t care much about Crichton, but I do care about science. Given all that the Enlightenment has given America, we are flirting dangerously with abandoning it. Good scientific understanding and a sound scientific infrastructure are what made America the economic powerhouse of the 20th Century. Science has saved us from the horrors of famine and disease. We all ought to be alarmed today as schools from kindergarten to graduate programs shy away from even the most basic science. Of course, it’s no wonder Americans have become cynical about science. They remember when one "health expert" after another in the pay of the tobacco industry told them that smoking wouldn’t hurt them, or that the evidence was "inconclusive."

We Americans tend to be a skeptical lot, who believe that human beings — and human institutions — are not entirely to be trusted. When I was a local reporter, I once covered a debate concerning a developer who wanted to fill in local wetlands. Someone pointed out the scientifically proven fact that filling in wetlands tends to contribute to increased flooding. The facts were dismissed with the wave of a hand: "You pay a scientist what he wants, and he will tell you what you want." Unfortunately, the Association of Petroleum Geologists is feeding the same attitude, only on a global scale.

But the petroleum geologists, like the rest of us, have benefited greatly from American science, and they have a stake in making sure people understand and support it. This was reflected in the past winners of their journalism award, among them scientists who write wonderfully well: Montana paleontologist Jack Horner and the late Harvard professor, Stephen J. Gould. Others winners are working journalists, such as my personal hero, John McPhee, who makes complex geology not only understandable but enjoyable. And the winners haven’t always been famous. Montana’s humble Mountain Press, which produces handy roadside geology guides, has been honored. There are even novelists on the list, such as the late James Michener, who was widely respected for the painstaking research he poured into his encyclopedic novels.

But saying that State of Fear is the kind of journalism that advances science is like saying that the movie Animal House is journalism that advances higher education. Then again, Animal House never pretended to be anything but a good laugh.

Ben Long lives in Kalispell, Montana.