11 February 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 85

"There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."
-- Mark Twain

If a conjecture is based on incomplete information, then it implies that information can be complete. Well, theoretically, yes. But practically? I don't think 100% completeness is possible, but is there a certain level of completeness we can achieve before we can call it a day? And if so, how do we even know that we have reached that level?

I'm not asking just to be difficult. The same questions came up for me last week, when my hair started breaking out in split ends and I had to be all CSI (as in Cuticle and Scalp Investigation) to figure out the likely culprits. After a few days, I knew more about acids, bases, humectants, and proteins than I had ever learned in high school, and I was able to narrow down the possibilities to two suspects working as a tag team. Then when I made changes based on my research, my hair went back to the great way it was. I think my diagnosis and prescription were spot on . . . but if this "CSI" episode involved putting the evidence on trial, I'd be a wavering witness. For I'm neither 100% sure nor able to give a confident estimate of my certainty. 

Pages 199 to 310

I'm starting to feel sorry for Peter Evans. He's coming off as really dumb. =( Not just because he splits hairs over every last bit of data which John Kenner and Sanjong Thapa have been presenting to him, but also because he feels so pleased when he thinks Kenner has actually approved of something he said . . . and so wounded when Kenner snaps at him in front of others. (Awwww!)

Michael Crichton's rhetoric (if I may call it that), requires someone to be skeptical of the data: all the "shocking" information being presented by Kenner needs a presistent advocatus diaboli before it can be accepted by the reader--and Evans fits the bill. But the less willing Evans is to be convinced, the more he seems like a two-dimensional propaganda prop. (And to think I wondered, several hundred pages ago, whether Evans was a stand-in for Crichton!) Ironically, his embarrassing fumbling in other matters are what help to flesh him out again. When he makes wrong but honest guesses and is torn between annoyance with and admiration of Kenner, he makes a better protagonist. And in fairness to him, environmental science may be his weak suit, but he can hold his own as a lawyer.  

In any case, I'm glad he didn't die in the crevasse--which was what I thought had happened when Sarah looked down to see his seat empty and the door hanging open. It would have been too cruel for Crichton to have killed Evans just for being a stubborn mule. =P Maybe Crichton thought it would be bad enough to make Evans need to be rescued by a girl. (I kid!) 

There will be a "Two or Three" Book Club meeting just for going over the actual data behind global warming, but for now, I'd like to address another line of argument which came up during one of Evans and Kenner's debates. Evans is trying to discredit the studies that have just been summarised for him.

. . . "These studies are probably financed by the coal industry," he said.

"Probably," Kenner said. "I'm sure that explains it. But then, everybody's paid by somebody . . . In fact, you do most of your work for environmental clients . . . Would it be fair to say that the environmental clients pay your salary?"

. . . "Yes."

"Okay. Then would it be fair to say that the opinions you hold are because you work for environmentalists?"

Kenner does a good job of explaining why Evans has just used the most insulting logical fallacy in the book, but there's something related to the latter's point that's worth looking at. I refer to the reality that the culture of our work organisations can do a lot to shape the way we look at the world. We do not have to be the paid stooges of those who sign our paychecks, but when top management commits the company to backing certain causes, we may engage in a bit of rationalisation.

Yet official authority figures like our bosses (or even our parents) have less to do with how we form opinions these days than do covert authority figures like media people. All other things being equal, there's no difference between receiving information from your father at the dinner table and receiving information from the radio in your car--but the stranger on the radio is usually given more credibility than a man you've known all your life. But people in the media aren't content just to present the most accurate information available; they also want to present it in the most persuasive, compelling way they can.

". . . If something is real, if it is a genuine problem that requires action, why does anybody have to exaggerate their claims? Why do there have to be carefully executed media campaigns?"

"I can give you a simple answer," Evans said. "The media is a crowded marketplace. People are bombarded by thousands of messages every minute. You have to speak loudly--and yes, maybe exaggerate a little--in order to get their attention. And try to mobilise the entire world to sign the Kyoto treaty."

Evans's answer is indeed simple: a certain method is used because it is the method that works. My parish committee said the exact the same thing about using wall-mounted video screens for liturgical purposes: they thought it would be the most effective way to make sure the congregation paid the right degree of attention to the right points of the Mass. If you follow the above link to an old post of mine, you'll see why I argue that what is on the screens is not reality, but a controlled version of reality.

This is relevant to our discussion of State of Fear because it harmonises with Kenner's rebuttal that even if the facts are all accurate and the information is as complete as possible, news consumers are still being manipulated. That is, there's not much difference between learning about global warming from the fact-checked evening news and learning about global warming from a heavily footnoted SF novel. But only one of these will admit that it is a storytelling medium.   

Discussion Questions:

1) Who is your favourite character so far?
2) Do you work for someone who can make your organisation, as a whole, lend its support to a cause, whether or not individual members agree with it?
3) Is it better not to know the news at all than to hear it as a story with heroes, villains, and neat resolutions to all the conflicts?  


DMS said...

I read this book a while back, so I can't answer who my favorite character is with 100% certainty. :)

But, I can answer the rest of the questions. At my work, there is no pressure to get behind any of the causes my boss supports. Still, I do hear about the boss's causes and the causes of others that I work with. I am sure that hearing about the causes from people I know influences me, even if I am not always aware of it.

Sometimes I need to go on a break from the news because I know it is slanted and most of it is bad news or not presented fairly.

I am glad you were able to do some research and figure out what was causing the split ends. I hope you were right about the cause, even if you weren't sure about the data. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


My company doesn't support specific causes, but when there is a natural calamity, we do donate money for relief. I'm glad to hear that there is no pressure at your company to support someone else's causes. But is there ever any cognitive dissonance when top management supports a cause which employees are personally against?

Thanks for all the comments you have been leaving on my State of Fear posts, Jess! =)

amy said...

I have given up internet news and have been thrown upon the mercy of conservative talk radio or NPR- pick your spin- right or left! It feels like poisoning my intellect receiving such unbalanced views on both sides. :)

Evans isn't much of a hero, but I am grateful to have any protagonist at this stage. And there is room for growth...

Enbrethiliel said...


I've never been very good about paying attention to the news. If something doesn't immediately affect me or isn't related to one of my personal interests, it tends not to pop up on my radar. This doesn't mean I'm immune to spin. It may even mean that I won't recognise spin when I do encounter it. =/

But these thoughts on the local and the immediate are actually more relevant to Meeting 86. I guess I'll elaborate when you've read further! =)