Bill McKibben’s Bad Example

February 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

When the late Michael Crichton appeared before a committee of the US Senate in 2005, he introduced himself this way:

I am Michael Crichton, known to most people as the author of Jurassic Park and the creator of the television series ER. My academic background includes degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Medical School; I was a visiting lecturer in Physical Anthropology at Cambridge University; and a post-doctoral fellow at the Salk Institute, where I worked on media and science policy with Jacob Bronowski.

Scientific medical training – check. Impressive schools such as Harvard and Cambridge – check. Science policy expertise – check. Now let’s add to this mix the fact that many of Crichton’s fictional thrillers involved scientific themes that required extensive background research.

None of the above makes Crichton infallible. Like everyone else on the planet, he was no doubt right about some things and wrong about others. But what these credentials do establish is that, in a society in which scientists say they’re alarmed about global warming, Crichton’s opinion was a reasonably informed one. His thoughts were therefore worthy of consideration.

The fact that Crichton was treated so dismissively by proponents of human-caused global warming is one of those red flags that tells us something odd is going on. It demonstrates that those seemingly nice people brimming with such concern for the planet are actually profoundly intolerant.

The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben, was published back in 1989. It is considered the first book about global warming written for a mainstream audience. At the time it appeared, McKibben was 29 years old. He’d grown up in the suburbs, studied undergraduate journalism at Harvard, and then immediately joined The New Yorker magazine as a staff writer.

The End of Nature tells us what scientists such as James Hansen thought back in the late 1980s. It also discusses what environmentalists believed. But the fact that the book contains no footnotes says a great deal. We’re just supposed to take the word of a young liberal arts major that the science behind global warming theory is compelling and that we should all abandon fossil fuels asap.

In my view, the arguments in that book are weak. Moreover, McKibben is an emotional basket case. He repeatedly tells us about his feelings of sadness, grief, loneliness, fear, panic, and depression (see the navy text in the midst of this post). None of this inspires confidence in the soundness of his judgment. There’s no doubt he attended a good school. But it’s unlikely he took many science courses while studying journalism at Harvard.

So, when he wrote a new introduction to the 2006 edition of The End of Nature, why did he denigrate Crichton? Why did he have to be so disrespectful? Here are his remarks:

In the past year, for instance, the most widely read account of global warming came from the novelist Michael Crichton [State of Fear deals with global warming], who argued it was all a ridiculous panic engineered by environmental groups to speed fund-raising. When the relevant Senate committee…convened to take testimony this fall, they didn’t summon the hurricane scientists, or the soil scientists, or the ice scientists. They asked for…Crichton. (last ellipsis in the original)

Let me get this straight. We’re supposed to pay attention to your views about global warming even though you have no scientific training whatsoever. Yet when someone who possesses both scientific training and science policy expertise wants to talk about these same issues, you imply that because he isn’t a hurricane, soil, or ice scientist he doesn’t deserve a platform.

The agenda for that day of Senate hearings is available here. It is quite clear that the topic under discussion was not global warming per se but “The Role of Science in Environmental Policy-Making.” (Incidentally, a hurricane expert did testify. He said there was no evidence of a link between global warming and stronger or more frequent hurricanes.)

Grown-ups know the world is a complicated place. We also know that intelligent, reasonable people can look at the same facts and come to different conclusions. That’s normal. It’s healthy.

Why are the people who believe in dangerous human-caused global warming so hostile to alternative perspectives? Why do they spend so much time disparaging and de-legitimatizing other points-of-view? Why won’t they address Crichton’s concerns – rather than dismissing them out-of-hand?

If you read Crichton’s Senate testimony – the very testimony that McKibben treats with such disdain – you’ll find that it’s cogent and intelligent. Its tone is also professional. For example, he makes a point of saying:

…I am not casting aspersions on the motives or fair-mindedness of climate scientists. Rather, what is at issue is whether the methodology of climate science is sufficiently rigorous to yield a reliable result.

These days McKibben likes to describe himself as a mild-mannered Sunday school teacher. But the example he sets in the global warming debate is a poor one.

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Entry filed under: Bill McKibben, books, ethical & philosophical, James Hansen. Tags: , , , , , .

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