Contrarian Cli-Fi 0.07: Aftermath 2005

Jerry Pournelle may have been behind the times on climate change but he had always been an early adopter of computer technology. By the early 2000’s Pournelle was already an active blogger (although he disliked that specific term). His views on global warming had changed very little and would continue not to change very much. He accepted that CO2 was a greenhouse gas and that there was evidence of warming but not much beyond that and still speculated whether humanity needed to “throw another log on the fire” to prevent an ice age (Chaos Manor 2007 ).

A great deal about science communication had changed over the intervening time between Fallen Angels and State of Fear. Whereas in past decades science magazines and hybrid sci-fi/science magazines like Analog or OMNI were a key part of science communication to a broader audience of people interested but not experts in science, in the 2000s science blogging was a growing channel between actual scientists and the public.

Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear also helped spur actual climate scientists to counter Crichton’s views (and doubts about global warming more generally) directly on the web. One of the most interesting exchanges in the wake of State of Fear was, unsurprisingly, on Pournelle’s own blog in 2005.

I’ve cast Pournelle as a right-wing ideologue pushing the contrarian view on climate change but he also manifestly had a genuine interest in climate science. He absolutely wanted to understand the scientific debate if only to refute it on its own terms. In the wake of the State of Fear discussion about global warming and global cooling would be a major topic on his blog. In part that debate was fuelled by reactions to Crichton’s novel in science and science fiction communities.

One obvious overlap between State of Fear, scientists and science fiction writers was author and physicist Gregory Benford. In a 2003 speech by Crichton that presaged the sceptical position of his novel, Crichton had quoted a paper by a panel that included Benford published in Science[1]:

“I can tell you that second hand smoke is not a health hazard to anyone and never was, and the EPA has always known it. I can tell you that the evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents would ever admit. I can tell you the percentage the US land area that is taken by urbanization, including cities and roads, is 5%. I can tell you that the Sahara desert is shrinking, and the total ice of Antarctica is increasing. I can tell you that a blue-ribbon panel in Science magazine concluded that there is no known technology that will enable us to halt the rise of carbon dioxide in the 21st century. Not wind, not solar, not even nuclear. The panel concluded a totally new technology-like nuclear fusion-was necessary, otherwise nothing could be done and in the meantime all efforts would be a waste of time. They said that when the UN IPCC reports stated alternative technologies existed that could control greenhouse gases, the UN was wrong.”

Benford responded in a column in the San Diego Tribune published in 2005 taking apart many of Crichton’s claims and misleading statements. Benford unequivocally stated that Crichton was getting his science wrong, relying on secondary sources and misunderstanding those sources.

“Further, he invokes the pseudo-sciences of eugenics and Lysenkoism (in the former Soviet Union) as examples of mainstream scientists being led astray. But these were politically driven ideologies. They have more in common with the voodoo science of the climate contrarians than the dominant view of atmospheric scientists and geophysicists. In keeping with many relevant professional societies, like the American Geophysical Union, we are convinced that the fossil fuel greenhouse is already here, and has the potential to vastly transform terrestrial climate for millennia to come.

To believe Crichton and company, you have to believe that there’s a vast conspiracy – involving the editors of Science, Nature, Scientific American and some dozen other peer-reviewed journals – to exclude and reject climate skeptics papers. The skeptics mainly publish books and on Web sites, avoiding journals.”

Benford concluded that columns stating:

“Still we don’t sandbag against the floods of tomorrow. Fairly comfortable now, we live in a science fictional narrative whose ending we’re shaping with our inaction.”

Benford’s article led to ongoing discussion (via email) on Pournelle’s blog. Pournelle himself conceded that:

“I would say that technologies that need massive development investments may be “known”, but they certainly can’t be implemented immediately. Perhaps Crichton would have been more accurate to say “readily implementable” instead of “known”.”

There certainly are ways to wrangle the conclusion of the Science paper to match Crichton’s claims about it but where Crichton was deploying the paper to argue for a kind of fatalism of the even-if-it’s-true-there’s-nothing-we-can-do in sharp contrast to the kind of technological optimism argued by the science paper (i.e. there is a range of technology but it will need work and investment to replace fossil fuels).

The right-leaning pro-engineering “hard” wing of science fiction need not be sceptical about global warming. If anything, here was a global challenge for humanity in which science and technology could step forward and help save the world from a disaster. Writers like Pournelle had, in the past, actively argued for society to look to technical solutions to complex social or political problems. Amid the humour and satire and misplaced climatology of Fallen Angels was a novel in which a love of and a commitment to science and science-based reasoning is a heroic and a bulwark against bad decision-making and social decline.

Pournelle assembled a range of questions about the current state of climate science, put them on his blog and did the sensible thing: asked a scientist. The specific scientist was Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goodard Institute for Space Studies.

Schmidt was not just an accomplished scientist in the field of climate modelling but he was also one of the founders of the RealClimate blog, established in 2004 to better help actual climate scientists communicate to non-experts about climate science. One of the site’s earliest posts was a detailed debunking of Crichton’s State of Fear.

“In summary, I am a little disappointed, not least because while researching this book, Crichton actually visited our lab and discussed some of these issues with me and a few of my colleagues. I guess we didn’t do a very good job. Judging from his reading list, the rather dry prose of the IPCC reports did not match up to the some of the racier contrarian texts. Had RealClimate been up and running a few years back, maybe it would’ve all worked out differently…”

There is a degree of optimism there, back in 2004, that Crichton and other contrarians are primarily confused or mistaken. That may even have been true of Crichton. So it isn’t surprising in that context that Schmidt replied to Pournelle’s email and that Pournelle publicised Schmidt’s replies and that a civil discussion between the two ensued. That conversation inevitably to the question of imminent ice ages:

JP: And I keep coming back to the fact that until not long ago the big concern was the Return Of The Ice (Schneider’s Genesis Strategy). What changed?

GS: You have to put it in context. The early 70s saw two advances that were quite novel – firstly that Milankovitch cycles did explain a great deal of the ice age cycles, with the corollary that since we are now in an interglacial, at some point a new ice age was likely. Secondly, the cooling effect of particulates (aerosols) was first quantified – and since (like GHGs) they are a by-product of industrialisation, they had been increasing with time, giving a cooling tendency. These two things coincided with the slight dip in temperature from the 1940s, and thus gave rise to the idea that the new ice age was imminent. But before you make the case that is exactly parallel to the situation today, go back to the scientific papers at the time – you’ll find that the discussions were often very nuanced and often the impact of CO2 was balanced against the aerosols. The classic 1971 NAS report concluded that much was unknown and more research was needed. Of course, neither you nor I will claim that reports in the popular media (i.e. Newsweek) generally do a good job of conveying scientific uncertainty. William Connelley has done a nice job summarising what the actual articles were saying: which even includes a brief discussion of the Schneider book. [for readibility I’ve added author initials to the discussions and tweaked formatting

Complex thing is complex. Climate science in the 1970s was coming to grips with multiple factors (some natural, some human-caused). In an earlier essay in this series I looked at John Gribbin’s Forecasts, Famines and Freezes and while it misjudged the net outcome of those many factors it does outline how many of them there are. To actually work out whether these factors added up to fire or frost was not something that could be resolved by Socratic argument or appeals to historical anecdotes.

To the Schmidt discussion, Pournelle concluded that “I have no resources to challenge any of this beyond my general views; I do think this is about as succinct a presentation of the Global Warming argument as I know.” Yet, while the topic of global warming would be one he returned to on many occasions, his views didn’t shift much: there was a warming trend but maybe that was a good thing.

Global cooling and science fiction were not done though. We’ve another novel to look at which, for once, had at least one notably prescient element.

Next Time: The Last Centurion


41 responses to “Contrarian Cli-Fi 0.07: Aftermath 2005”

  1. Crichton argued against second-hand smoke as a health threat? While I never saw him as (if you’ll excuse the phrase) a thought leader, it’s disappointing to see him, in the words of my old DM, not play his intelligence.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You know it is rather odd, Crichton’s science in his medical thrillers and science fiction books was often awful or silly, but he did do a lot of research for them, to lay a base of credibility, and he did care about science. He did stories that often warned about serious science-based problems that had developed or could develop, if in an often roundabout and ridiculous way, such as resurrecting dinosaurs. That’s why he did get the rep of being an ideas guy who had a good eye for future science issues, deserved or not. It’s why many people believed him on climate change — he seemed to have “done the research.” But he appears to have fixated on various ideas highly favorable to corporations — tobacco industry, fossil fuels, tech, etc., ignoring science that wasn’t convenient to their aims. As much as he skeptically made corporations his scientific bad guys in many novels, he does not seem to have emulated that attitude in real life.

    It’s rather like all these billionaire techlords who grew up loving cyberpunk dystopia SF novels but ignored the main messages of those novels, deciding instead to emulate the corporate autocracies the punk characters were fighting against. But that’s part of being the contrarian — the idea that you and your discernment are above the rank and file and you can better see and shape the future. It’s an attitude that plays quite comfortably into status quo societal privileges and helps defend them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You could say that James Hogan cared about science, if you’d read nothing but his earliest novels. Inherit the Stars is probably the best example of what I mean – I read it as an undergrad and was quite taken in by the way he set up a scientific puzzle and brought in multiple lines of evidence to solve it, showing in the process that he’d done a lot of homework. It was almost enough to let the reader skate past the idea that the Moon only began orbiting the Earth some time around the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic, despite the abundant (even then) palaeontological and geological evidence to the contrary.
      But then, look at where he went. The drifting Moon wasn’t an anomaly, it was a bellweather. It’s been decades since I read the novel, but I recall it featured a hidebound representative of the scientific establishment who stood foursquare in the path of free inquiry as well, although this character was actually quite sympathetically depicted and shown not to be entirely wrong, in the end.
      Any commitment Hogan had to science was readily sacrificed on the altar of libertarian politics.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The upholder of scientific orthodoxy is right about almost everything and uses orthox theory to deduce the startling final revelation in the book. You’d never guess that Hogan was going to go evolution-denier based on Inherit the Stars. But he did. Sigh.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Of course, Hogan himself wasn’t a scientist; Hogan was an engineer. See also the Salem Hypothesis. Most of his hero characters may be said to be scientists, but they’re really more inventors.

        (And I say this as someone trained as an engineer as well: sadly a number of people in engineering seem to assume they’re actual scientists despite not being anywhere near as willing to question their original assumptions as scientists are supposed to be.)


          • See one of the most famous examples being Andrew Schlafly. Hogan did do electrical engineering (as well as mechanical) but seems to have done it in more of a ‘trade school’ manner at a aircraft design school, so he’s a step even further away from the background theory.

            I did electrical engineering myself, which just makes this sort of thing even more annoying. (Granted I was more focusing on the electrical side of computer and processor design.)

            Though at the University where I got my degree, it was actually one of the Civil Engineering profs that was the out and out Creationist. I kind of boggled when I was going through old newspaper articles for something back in the late 1980s and found letters to the editor from him going on about this. That was my first real exposure to the idea that engineers could be that… tied up in their own reality. Not somebody I ever took courses from myself, thankfully.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I think that part of the reason for this (and feel free to slap me down if I’m wrong here) is that a lot of engineers generally deal with circumscribed systems with relatively few sources of variance. It predisposes them to think of all systems in this way. Biologists and geologists have to grapple with all sorts of variance.
              Given that, it’s surprising to hear of a civil engineer being a hard-core creationist, given that their work is out in the wind and rain.


              • That’s certainly one of the theories about why engineers seem particularly prone to going off into ‘woo’ as RationalWiki puts it. I’m not sure that’s the biggest issue, though. There are several doctors that have gone full anti-vaxx, for example, and there’s nothing particularly circumscribed about being a pediatrician. (Yes, there are anti-vaxx pediatricians.) There are also numerous examples of physicists who look at biology or some other field and go into full ‘oh, the solution to this problem is obvious’ mode, to which the response is often ‘yes, that solution is so obvious that we tried it a century ago and found out that it doesn’t work’.

                I think the real base for this is:
                – Someone who knows that they’re smart (whether or not that is actually true);
                – Someone whose self-image is tied up in being smart (making them more likely to interpret ‘you’re wrong’ as jealousy and thus dig in their heels); and
                – Someone operating in a field outside their primary expertise (where they don’t know the history).

                Being trained as an actual scientist mitigates this to some extent because you’re taught to question your assumptions, and people who can’t are less likely to make it through schooling. This of course leaves most engineers and doctors more prone to making these sorts of mistakes because they don’t get that training. The ‘physicists doing biology’ bit shows this isn’t the primary factor either, though. Really, it mostly seems to just be ego and getting self-image tied up in being ‘right’.

                I added the ‘whether or not (being smart) is actually true’ bit because that explains a lot of the ‘tech bro’ side of things. There are a number of people in the tech industry who seem to believe they’re geniuses when mostly they were just lucky to be in a field without much history yet, and made enough money to reinforce their own delusions of grandeur.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Yes, an underlying motivation in general is to show that you’re the smartest person in the room.
                  My musings about dealing with constrained systems with well-controlled sources of variance is though, I think, apposite for the particular case we were discussing. Also, I’m an evolutionary biologist (well, that’s one of my hats) and the sources of statistical variance that I have to deal with are anything but well-controlled – vast, chthonic and ancient (the Lovecraftian overtones are purely spurious). It gives me the hab-dabs when people evince no evidence that they understand that some systems can’t be manipulated and you have to work to strain the signal out of the chatter.

                  Liked by 1 person

            • Petr Beckmann, who I mentioned in an earlier post, was an actual Professor of Electrical Engineering (his specialty was Electromagnetic Wave Propagation). He played an important role in the early days of climate denialism (he like to use the epithet “Greenhoax Effect”). He was also a relativity “skeptic” – he even published his own journal (“Galilean Electrodynamics”) devoted to alternatives to special and general relativity, as well as a monthly newsletter, “Access to Energy” which was primarily devoted to pushing nuclear power but which he also filled with diatribes against anything that looked remotely like environmental advocacy. When I was on usenet in the 1990’s I noticed that a fair number of SF fans from the right side of the political spectrum were also fans of “Access” – I kept seeing arguments from Access appearing a few weeks later on usenet, sometimes with attribution but usually not.

              Liked by 1 person

                • I used to read Access to Energy in the Engineering library at the University of Colorado (I never met Beckmann, he retired before I arrived). Eight pages an issue, printed on grungy pink paper. You can read the back issues online on Robinson’s web site, but they don’t have the same impact without the feel of that crappy paper. A few issues after Beckmann’s death, Robinson published a special issue containing tributes from the usual suspects (e.g. Fred Singer, Tom Bethell, Julian Simon). The most striking contribution came from none other than Edward Teller. Teller gently informed the readers of _AtE_ that even though Einstein was an icky socialist he was, in fact, right about that Relativity business and that Beckmann was wrong on that particular issue.

                  Liked by 1 person

        • Engineering is *applied* science, after all. So many engineers think they’re scientists because they had science classes in undergrad, but…
          (Source: also went to engineering school)


    • I was surprised when Crichton jumped aboard the Climate Denialism bandwagon, because “dire unanticipated consequences of new technology” is such a pervading theme in his work, going all the way back to Andromeda Strain. Pournelle, Hogan et al. always seemed to be much more worried about the dire consequences of excessively cautious overregulation of new technology, especially when it came to environmental impacts. Their fans went on and on about how “greenies” and “envirowhiners” were going to hold humanity back.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. From the article, Gregory Benford said:

    To believe Crichton and company, you have to believe that there’s a vast conspiracy – involving the editors of Science, Nature, Scientific American and some dozen other peer-reviewed journals – to exclude and reject climate skeptics papers. The skeptics mainly publish books and on Web sites, avoiding journals.”

    This was in 2005.

    In 2009, the emails uncovered from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia indicated that such collusion existed to some extent. The emails indicated other issues with “the science” as well given some of the comments added to the computer code at the time.

    Prophylactically, I think CO2 is of some importance to the climate. Certainly worth researching. Certainly worth addressing in a sane manner.

    Science requires skeptics to remain science. Otherwise, it is no longer science and instead becomes “science”, more like religion than intellectual inquiry.

    Tolerance always has limits – it cannot tolerate what is itself actively intolerant. – Sidney Hook (1975). “Pragmatism and the tragic sense of life”


    • The CRU emails showed a number of climate scientists being privately critical of the Soon & Baulinas paper in Climate Research…which matched the very, very public criticism the same scientists had made at the time (2003) Revealing that people held the same views in private as they had openly stated in public is something I guess but I’m not sure what.

      I mean, if I was hacked and people found an email by me to somebody else in fandom saying “sad puppies suck” that wouldn’t substantiate a claim that there was a conspiracy against the sad puppies. What you’d need is an email from me saying that they didn’t suck but we should all pretend that they did.

      Liked by 1 person

      • @Cam

        That really is a minimalization of what happened. They weren’t just carping at other scientists. They expressed an active desire to see other viewpoints excluded from professional journals so that their work wouldn’t be included in IPCC reports. They expressed an active desire to see scientists with divergent perspectives* get fired. They colluded to delete email archives to foil legitimate FOIA requests such as those created by Steve McIntyre. They also discussed other ways to avoid complying with those (again legitimate) FOIA requests for complete data sets, methods, etc.

        I could go on but if those illegitimate activities are going to get boiled down to some version of “those people suck”, then I don’t see the point.

        The central point of science is that one’s work should be reproducible by an independent source. When a person decides that they are only obligated to release their data/methods/etc. to people already predisposed to agree with their conclusions, then they are no longer a scientist. They are a ‘scientist’ chanting a different version of “let us proclaim the mystery of faith”.

        *divergent perspectives ranging from complete opposition to merely disagreeing with the scale of impact due to human activities, FWIW.

        “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, – go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!” – Samuel Adams


        • That’s your spin and the spin of the criminals who stole the emails, which is why (unlike your self) pointed at the specifics – things that had occurred and were well known prior to theft. I mean you called all of the system of peer reviewed academia a “conspiracy” to prevent “divergent perspectives” from being heard but you are claiming a specific conspiracy.

          Liked by 1 person

          • @Cam

            What I said was:

            “…that such collusion existed to some extent.”

            You have somehow stretched that into calling the entire system of peer-reviewed academia a “conspiracy”. A more accurate description would be that I believe that there were some bad actors that were attempting to influence the larger peer review/publishing process in a way that is counter to basic principles for conducting and reporting on scientific research.

            That isn’t spin. But if the conversation is going to remain preloaded with your misconceptions, then I’ll wish you and yours Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.

            Every socialistic type of government… produces bad art, produces social inertia, produces really unhappy people, and it’s more repressive than any other kind of government. – Frank Zappa


    • Anyone who thinks that these hacked e-mails are evidence for some conspiracy among climate scientists has obviously never heard scientists talking among themselves.
      Bear in mind also that these researchers had been inundated with vexatious Freedom of Information requests by such contrarians as Steve McIntyre, which took up a great deal of their time and in fact were intended to do just that – these weren’t good-faith requests for data to be used to test climate hypotheses, just a means of keeping researchers from doing their jobs.


  4. In some sort of weird synchrony, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was playing a concert just the other night in our town. Baxter, of course, is the guitarist for Steely Dan, who became some sort of self-proclaimed electronics expert and toured the halls of Congress with Pournelle and his buds arguing in favor Reagan’s Star Wars proposals. The mind reels picturing Pournelle hanging with Baxter, arguing about the best way to detect oncoming Russky missiles. Although they seemed to share an interest in facial hair as well as a predilection for berets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Back in RASFF, I learned that Johnny Cash had been posted in Germany to monitor transmissions, and wrote:
      “I keep a watch for Russkies on the Rhine.
      I keep my ears wide open all the time.
      I mind those dots and dashes that go flyin’.
      When I’m at Mainz
      I watch the lines.”

      Liked by 3 people

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