Friday, September 22, 2006

Will "State of Fear" make you smarter about global warming?

"It is unfashionable to assert it, but the novel does, I believe, still have a socio-educational value," writes John Sutherland in an edited excerpt from How to Read a Novel.

He may be right. My own view, however, is that the greatest "socio-educational value" derived from novel reading is in keeping readers from causing, or getting caught up in, all the varieties of trouble that could result if their noses weren't in books.

Sutherland is more positive:
Fiction can make us better, or at least, better informed citizens. In a technological age, for example, it is important that the population should know something about the machinery that makes modern life possible and how it works. Science fiction has done as much for the factual scientific education of the average reader as all the educational reforms introduced since CP Snow's 1959 polemic The Two Cultures lamented his fellow Britons' epidemic ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics. The fact, revealed in a survey by the magazine Wired in November 2005, that 40 per cent of Americans believe that aliens are in the habit of routinely visiting our planet and taking away sample earthlings for full body cavity probes, suggests that sf may also have a lot to answer for in dumbing down the citizenry.
So far, so good. But then Sutherland reaches for one of the weirder examples I can imagine using to advance his thesis.

Michael Crichton's career is a prime example for those, like myself, who want to believe that sf wises up more than it dumbs down. Crichton's The Andromeda Strain was the first true title in the genre to make it to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, in 1969. The novel's breakthrough is attributable to the fact that its descriptions of space hardware (what computers do, for example) made the concurrent moon landings comprehensible to the American population. Crichton's vastly successful Jurassic Park (1990) later introduced a whole generation, via the beloved dinosaur, to the intricacies of Crick and Watson's Nobel-winning discoveries about DNA and the complexities of chaos theory (something that Steven Spielberg prudently left out of the film version).

How much we can trust fiction, even fiction as laboriously researched as Crichton's, to be our educator, remains a moot question. On the strength of his 2004 bestseller, State of Fear, the novelist was invited to testify in 2005 before a US Senate committee investigating climate change. The book is a techno-thriller based on the premise that the greenhouse gas thesis is a gigantic scam, as fallacious as was eugenics in the early 19th century and alchemy in the 17th. And dangerous. The politicians and oil barons love him.

Crichton is unusual in being a novelist with degrees in medicine from Harvard. Why, then, wouldn't he know more about things scientific than some columnist? The fact is, no one knows the accuracy of what Crichton knows, or thinks he knows. Crichton is as likely to be wrong about climate change as he was about the imminent Japanese takeover of America, as outlined in his "Wake up, America!" novel, Rising Sun. Shortly after its publication, the Tokyo real estate market collapsed and the Japanese economy became a basket case.

Readers can still enjoy State of Fear, whether they go along with Crichton or not. And, whatever else, those who get through the book will probably know more about the issues than they did before and may even be stimulated to find out yet more.

Is State of Fear's contribution to the public dialogue on global warming really the best example Sutherland could come up with to back an argument that fiction makes us smarter?

--Marshal Zeringue