TCS Daily

Photoshopping the Apocalypse: The Gods Are Angry with Michael Crichton

By Russell Seitz - May 13, 2005 12:00 AM

The gods are angry with Michael Crichton. "State of Fear" has left global warming only marginally cooler than tossing virgins in volcanoes or serving parboiled PETA directors as hors d'oeuvres. But what's really put Gaia on Prozac is seeing science sacrificed on the altar of media hype.

The latest Earth Day burnt offerings are the New York Times / Discovery Channel's "Supervolcano" and PBS's "Strange Days On Planet Earth". They round out a quadraphonic post-Tsunami barrage of volcanic doom and gloom on educational and cable TV. It includes every eruption you've ever heard of, ranging from Thera to Tambora by way of Pompeii. Why is this 12-hour Gotterdammerung rally hogging PBS and Discovery Channel prime time?

The programs use frightening special effects to make a visceral point: environmental change kills, so don't even think about changing the environment.

State of the art computer animation lends itself to inflating things science can barely detect into icons of immanent doom. Thirty years ago, the mellow image of the Whole Earth rising over the moon was emblematic of the first Earth Day.

It bears little resemblance to its iconic successor. Supervolcano and Strange Days feature a virtual planet from Hell that crackles with the day glow shock fronts only high resolution software can generate. Gone is the good gray PBS screen that used to educate and inform, replaced by a surrealist billboard for images intense enough to brand themselves into the popular imagination -- we are being shown the future by design.

In a 2003 lecture," Aliens Cause Global Warming," Crichton warned Cal Tech students that in science, the quality of data -- or the lack of it -- is paramount. There's no use equating mere strings of numbers with scientific proof. He focused on the selling of "Nuclear Winter" -- a scare based on a computer model with inputs "so poorly known that no estimates could be reliably made." That didn't stop Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich's ersatz Apocalypse from changing the imaginary landscape of the Cold War. Who needs data when you've got unlimited media access? "The most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation...appeared on the Johnny Carson show " 65 times.

Nuclear winter soon melted under scientific scrutiny, but before it did, it scorched NATO's solidarity in the face of the Warsaw Pact's overwhelming superiority in the conventional arms race along the Iron Curtain. The Soviet crack up saved the day before push came to shove on the evil empire's border, but nuclear winter was a lesson in semantic aggression that Kyoto climate treaty advocates have heeded.

But taste is fickle. Between past computer modeling fiascos, and rise of a generation that appreciates the difference between computer games and reality, the genre's ability to inspire belief has waned. So Greens have switched to an old standby for bludgeoning the popular imagination: chunks of rock. Pumice to be exact. Vesuvius, Mount St. Helens, and Krakatoa all started roaring on TV last fall, and now Old Faithful has joined in. "Supervolcano" assumes the world will end not with a bang but a whoosh of scalding ash and a thudding barrage of hot rocks from Yellowstone Park.

Geological disasters are a fine way to groom audiences to accept climate change -- the pace of plate tectonics may be glacial but it generates fireworks none can ignore. Global warming is so slow, subtle, and uncertain that Greens fear we might sleep through it, but being beaned by a lava bomb is guaranteed to rouse a sedated mule.

Honest Greens like Stewart Brand acknowledge that the end of the world isn't what it used to be -- too many software-waving prophets of doom have failed to deliver. This makes supervolcanic eruptions and tsunamis manna to media consultants because they befall real people in the material world.

The Earth spewing enough incandescent gore to gag Quentin Tarentino may seem a hard act to follow, but with the explosive growth of computer animation, anything goes. The New York Times' pop science outlet, the Discovery Channel, has joined with the BBC to bring us high budget hype for high definition TV. For once, the Greens have gotten value for money. "The Day After Tomorrow" was a $125,000,000 box office bomb, but "Supervolcano" is a blockbuster. The New York Post's Adam Buckman admits "Discovery has had a reputation for emphasizing science over fiction" which makes "the whole thing seem entirely plausible."

Crichton's "State of Fear" has been criticized for bidding for scientific credibility with footnotes. "Supervolcano" invokes the United States Geological Survey, the British Meteorology Office, NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Adding a real live network anchor, and a uniformed park ranger to the scientists' talking heads create an aura of sober credibility Smokey the Bear might envy.

That does not make the production honest. Madison Avenue knows that limited scientific literacy and innumeracy go hand in hand, and Supervolcano preys on both. It serves up so much real but irrelevant disaster footage as hors d'oeuvres that sated viewers may swallow the entrée as hard science, instead of a computer-animated soufflé.

It predicts an instant replay of the Yellowstone caldera's eruption, but you can't blow up the same landscape twice. The program's geological leitmotiv is Mount Saint Helens, but the subduction zone that drove its eruption is both different from Yellowstone's energy source and a thousand miles away. In the 700,000 years since the last North American supereruption, the whole National park has slid westward past the hot plume in the earth's mantle that caused the prehistoric blow out. Apart from flipping its lid, plate tectonics moved this wheezy pressure cooker off its burner several ice ages ago.

The program sinks further into the lava of disinformation by implying that 2,500 cubic kilometers of molten rock presently 10 miles underground may end abruptly up in the stratosphere -- an event whose outcome is an apocalyptic no brainer. Pyroclastic flows roast everything from Sun Valley to Salt Lake City and then the world freezes to death in the dusty dark as "Temperatures fall by 15 degrees centigrade." Or do they?

As in "Nuclear Winter" the dark skies arise not from physics but software jockeys following arbitrary orders to turn off the climate model's sun like a light bulb to precipitate a predictable disaster. It makes for great special effects, but TV producers cannot compel Mother Nature to follow suit. There is a world of difference between caldera eruptions that resemble boiler explosions and nuclear bombs that explode in nanoseconds, but the producers substitute atomic weapons test footage for the volcanic real McCoy.

By stringing worst-case scenarios together with little more than the will to terrify, the script falls prey to Murphy's second law. If everything must go wrong, don't bet on it. Software can instantly and effortlessly convert magma underground into talcum powder in the stratosphere, but nothing connects computer animation to physical reality. The producers have been Photoshopping the Apocalypse by force-feeding extreme numbers to their software to beget a ghost in a machine.

The failure to answer a long string of questions about the games modelers play led to the scientific demise of another instant apocalypse a generation ago. It was marketed as "nuclear winter" by the peace movement, to the dismay of NATO's friends and the glee of its enemies. It mixed phenomena like metaphors -- the dust up from an asteroid impact and the soot from a thousand Kuwait oil fires where thrown into the semiotic melting pot to brew up revulsion to nuclear weapons.

So, too, today. "Supervolcano" is no more a geophysics lesson the Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is an advertisement for the Puritan Ethic. It is an artful piece of apocalyptic propaganda designed to inspire superstitious awe. It repeats as gospel the litany of factoids Carl Sagan tried to palm off a generation ago. Crichton should have saved his breath -- hype in the service of zeal has yet again exhumed the specter of freezing to death amidst darkness at noon.

"Supervolcano" succeeds in one-upping Sagan by adding geological history run fast forward to worst-case modeling run wild. Supereruptions happen. So do asteroid impacts and the loss of whole continents to subduction. But real geology occupies the realm of deep time. It takes an eon to inflate a state-sized caldera, not the few months "Supervolcano" reduces to half an hour. Even now scientists are wiring the planet to assure that the first warning would come decades, if not centuries before the next major divot gets blasted in the earth's crust.

There are better directions for disaster buffs to turn to than Yellowstone. Supereruptions ripped the Pacific Rim not 700,000 years ago but in 70,000 and 7,400 BC. The fact that we are not extinct is not one professional Apocalyptics like to advertise -- it's hard to sell to the survivor's descendants. But you can't blame them for trying. A 125 million dollar commercial is a terrible thing to waste, and sure enough, it is premiering on cable TV this weekend, hot on the heels of the spring volcanic mud season. Without true believers bent on returning science to its cold war role as an extension of politics by other means, those bent on turning geophysics into an instrument of fear might be out of business.



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