Using Novels as Bases for Case Studies: Michael Crichton's State of Fear and Global Warming

By Herreid, Clyde Freeman | Journal of College Science Teaching, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview
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Using Novels as Bases for Case Studies: Michael Crichton's State of Fear and Global Warming


Herreid, Clyde Freeman, Journal of College Science Teaching


"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be
chewed and digested" (Bacon).

Every time an English professor assigns a novel, poem, or play for a class to analyze, he or she is using the case study method. Why shouldn't we scientists do the same? We don't always have to write our own material. After all, there are some pretty good writers out there, and some of them actually slip a lot of science into the nooks and crannies of their plots. Indeed, in the case of Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and more recently State of Fear, science is front and center--with graphs and footnotes to actual scientific papers no less. So let's consider the novel as a basis for a case study.

Novel Teaching

Each spring I teach an honors seminar called Scientific Inquiry: Case Studies in Science. Enrolling a couple of dozen students, my main objective is to give them a better idea of how science is really accomplished. That's easier said than done. (Most students--and indeed, most folks--don't have a clue as to the really messy nature of science and the reasons that we can't always give simple answers to questions. Lawyers take full advantage of this when they put scientists on the stand as expert witnesses.) Case studies can show how scientists act on a day-to-day basis. That's what I am after in this course.

To accomplish this, over the years I have developed and used a covey of case studies. More imaginatively, I have had students create cases themselves and then go into the community to teach their cases to high school classes. This year, I tried a slightly different approach. I still had students develop cases and go into the community, but I started the course off using a novel as the basis of a case.

On the first day of class, I had each student list the top 10 problems in the world--similar to a David Letterman survey. Not surprisingly, they named subjects like overpopulation, pollution, the ozone hole, deforestation, loss of exotic species, and extinction. What surprised me momentarily was that many of them also included natural disasters. But this was explicable, because we had just passed through the rough hurricane season and a horrendous tsunami had swept away hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia and India. But, predictably, the single topic that was on almost everyone's list was global warming. That's where Crichton's new book, State of Fear, comes in. Global warming is the theme that drives the book, so I thought why not use it?

Before students read the book, they needed in-depth background in the subject. There is no question that the subject of global warming is important. A week rarely passes without a media story flickering across our television screens; anything out of the ordinary in weather merits a comment from some pundit about how the anomaly is connected to global warming. But the primary literature is humongous, complex, and overwhelming. Science and Nature publish an article on the subject in almost every issue. If we were going to use the global warming theme, we really had to do our homework.

During the second class, I reported that, on the basis of students' lists, we were going to concentrate on global warming and were going to read Crichton's novel. But we had to prepare for it. To start, I asked them to list all the lines of evidence they could think of that might indicate that global warming was indeed occurring. Once the list was made and placed on the blackboard. I assigned small groups of students different aspects of the problem--temperature, ice caps, sea level, gases in the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect, and ozone. Although ozone is not actually indicative of global warming, I let this topic stand because laypeople and the media often bring up the ozone hole when talking about global warming.

The groups had two weeks to research the topic and write a 20-page paper.

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