My current status of a man of leisure with plenty of reading time allows me to indulge. More than a 1000 pages of Michael Crichton in three days. I normally list my reading here, but the last Crichton I read, called State of Fear, tickled me to write a bit more. Like all of his other novels, it’s sells because many enjoy his fast-paced techno-thriller genre, with lots of science thrown in feel you’ve learned while being entertained. This one is about global warming (yes, I know, wikipedia is not to be referenced, but this is a pretty good overview) and climate change, and Crichton is a sceptic.
The book obviously stirred a lot of controversy (have a look here and here) because climate scepticism is not fashionable, scientific consensus about the basics is very strong, although what the actionable implications should be is much less clear. But I’ll leave debating Crichton’s position to my paleoclimatology daughter and focus on the use of a thriller to communicate scientific evidence and conclusions based on it.
I’m your avid non-fiction reader, devour a lot of popular expositions on issues that interest me, but am not a specialized academic with the time to read (many) original research, have no comprehensive overview of debates in the particular field, and am unable to engage based on access to most of what should be taken into account. That makes me cautious, which is a good thing in my book because reality is way too opaque and deserves extreme caution. Thinking one knows is a trap. That’s how we stumble from Black Swan to Black Swan and they keep getting bigger.
Which brings me to an aside that’s got nothing to do with this post. I have been pestering you with my languages & poetry fancy so I might as well add this English beauty to the bag (for lyrics, see here):
OK, back on topic, what did I think of this form for scientific content? Mmmm, not impressed I am. The beauty of fiction is that it offers another entry point to reality than science. If the objective is to represent reality, fiction (and other alternative representations) can do things that social science cannot. But that’s not what Crichton’s book does. His somewhat cartoonesk characters discuss climate change science, and the actual story is just an excuse for these discussions and a way of keeping the reader’s attention. The story doesn’t in and of itself make you think.
Reading State of Fear did make me ponder on other efforts to use form to engage and communicate science. The regular science writer uses anecdotes, often about the personal life of scientists, and all kinds of examples and metaphors that one wouldn’t come across in publications for academia. And the focus is on a broad subject, much broader than anything addressed in a publication for peers. So they present an overview of the current state of the art regarding a certain approach, field or issue. Very much enjoy reading those. Then there’s the Douglas Hofstadter (Godel, Escher & Bach), Nassim Nicolas Taleb (Incerto) kinda eclectic bricolage that goes for even freer narrative form. Love those even better but they are one-of-a-kind rarities. Such work moves into that grey area wherein non-fiction slowly transmutes into fiction. That’s why the ones that I refer to very clearly differentiate between the narrative persuasion they use to get their arguments across and their scientific claims, and make the formal case for various aspects of their ideas in peer reviewed journals. Moving solidly into the fiction part of the spectrum one comes to authors like Robert Pirsig (yes, I consider philosophy a really crucial part of science), and beyond that comes the fiction that doesn’t refer to anything outside itself. The reader may extract meaning about reality from the narrative content or structure, but the text doesn’t present it directly, nor was it necessarily written to communicate whatever is being read into it.
It’s like the relationship between song and visual in this little gem:
Probably Sate of Fear is best described as infotainment, professionally executed (it did keep me nailed until I had finished it), but not a book that’ll stay with me, invade my being, colour my vision. Good non-fiction tends to stay with me, but not really transform; good fiction similarly. It’s that undefined area in between, that really does it to me.