How do you tell when you’re being spun?

An two-year-old speech by Michael Crichton that came across a mailing list I’m on slams scientists for being “seduced by the… lures of politics and publicity,” bringing its skepticism to bear on the growing scientific consensus on global warming. One person on the list asked the obvious question after reading it, namely who is the layman to trust?

My response was that it’s not really that hard (though I should have added it’s a skill that needs to be learned).

Start by being skeptical of anyone who wears being a lone skeptic against a vast sea of consensus as a badge of honor, especially when he’s not an expert in the field he’s criticizing. One in a million really is the genius he thinks he is, but most of the time there’s a good reason everyone else thinks he’s full of it. Then be doubly suspicious of any explanation of an idea or study given by someone who opposes it. (I’m reminded of a born-again Baptist friend of mine in high school who kept trying to explain to my Catholic girlfriend what “Catholics believe” — as described in some Catholic-bashing pamphlet her church was handing out.)

Next, see what parts of what they’re saying you do know something about, or can find out through a quick Web search. I can’t speak to everything Crichton’s complaining about, but I do know he’s wrong that SETI isn’t science (regardless of whether they’re barking up the wrong tree), he’s either wrong or highly selective on second-hand smoke and he’s wrong when it comes to lack of scientific debate about the existence of global warming (there’s been plenty of debate over the years — I gather he just doesn’t like which side is coming out on top). He’s also wrong in his defense of his fellow lone wolf, Lomborg. Lomborg wasn’t attacked for coming to the wrong conclusions, he was attacked for “selective use of data, misuse of data, misinterpretations, inappropriate precision, [and] errors of fact.” I’d say the fact that he was shouted down in the scientific community, in spite of economic and political pressure on his side, is a sign of something right with science. (Crichton’s insinuation that Lomborg’s critics don’t substantiate their attacks in detail is nonsense — see the above-linked review for one of many examples.)

As a side-note, Crichton’s comment that “to predict anything about the world a hundred years from now is simply absurd” is strange coming as it does from a science fiction author. It’s also yet another straw-man — computer models don’t make predictions, they assign probabilities based on our best guesses and based on different choices we might make. It’s impossible for anyone to predict whether a fire will start while I sleep, but that doesn’t stop me from upgrading old electrical wiring and getting fire insurance based on my best guess at the likelihood of a fire. Ray Bradberry once said the function of science fiction is not to predict the future, but to prevent it. In this case, that’s probably a good function of science fact as well.