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.
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. I asked for one volunteer in each group to write the paper (this person would have reduced duties in the collection of data); this is a common strategy in teams of engineering professionals. This approach ensured that there would be coherence in the writing style and an integrated approach to the report. Groups who write separate sections and then splice them together invariably have messy papers.
After the reports were turned in, graded, and returned, I asked each student to write two different types of case studies on their portion of the case. They prepared for this by presenting a couple of case studies on other topics in class so they learned what I was after. I also suggested that they look at the cases on the website of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science for further examples. Plus, I asked them to write teaching notes for their cases.
When the papers were handed in, the case study portions turned out pretty well, but most of the lesson plans for teachers were woefully inadequate. Not surprisingly, students do not have much insight into how something should be taught. I must hurriedly add that many faculty who do know how to teach also have difficulty writing good teaching notes.
But now I come to Crichton. There we were, a third of the way through the semester, and spring break was coming. A student pleaded with me, "Please, no more global warming!"
But I was relentless and said, "Over the next couple of weeks I want you to read Crichton's State of Fear and write a critique of the book. When next we meet, we will discuss the book. And, oh, by the way, write another case study on any other topic that was on your original list of the top 10 important issues. Have a nice spring vacation."
There were no revolts. No crying or whining. Well, not much. Almost all of the assignments were done by the time we got together again, although there were a couple of "My grandmother died" and "I had a personal crisis" pleas. All was well after spring break. The students looked rested and ready to go.
Getting to the Science
On the day of the discussion, I primed students to talk about Crichton by first having them look at critiques written by other members in their group. Then I said, "Let's talk about State of Fear."
Just like in any other case discussion, it was necessary to have a distinct plan of attack for this one. My strategy was to first have students discuss what they thought of the basic plot. This was an easy question to field, which was good because an opening question in a case should be nonthreatening--something easily handled by anyone. And it was; everyone got into the act. There were lots of comments about the ease of the read ("a page turner"), the improbability of the events ("Come on, how reasonable is it to haul around a tiny octopus just to kill someone?"), the character of Dr. Kenner ("Know-it-all Rambo"), the role of the women ("As a feminist, I don't think the character Jennifer is a good role model"), the main character Evans ("Why is this guy going along to the Antarctic, Greenland, New Guinea, and Arizona? What good is he?"), and the gruesomeness of the cannibal scene ("Geesh"). It was clear they had read the book!
The second stage of my plan was to get to the science. The way I approached it was to turn to each group that specialized in a topic and ask them to comment on the accuracy of the data presented in the novel itself and in the author's personal remarks at the end. Interestingly, the students largely supported Crichton's assessment of the global warming argument (i.e., that there is considerable hype but little concern for the immediate future).
As they worked their way through the graphs, students noted that the evidence supported the view that small changes in the gas composition of the atmosphere were occurring and that global temperature was rising slightly. Yet there was really no way to assess whether or not this is due to human activities or normal climate variations. Moreover, the groups looking at the sea level and ice cap data, in which there are extreme difficulties in measurement, simply threw their hands up and said the data were inconclusive. And most of them sided with critics of modeling because of the questionable accuracy of forecasting years into the future.
Crichton would be pleased; especially as sundry internet critics have bashed him for his contrarian views about global warming. He definitely had friends in this class.
Leaving the discussion, I assured the young lady who earlier wished that we could abandon the global warming topic that we could now get on with solving other problems in the world, like cancer. She seemed satisfied. (And ... there is Lance Armstrong's book about testicular cancer It's Not About the Bike.)
This material is based on work supported by the NSF under Grant No. 0341279. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.
Clyde Freeman Herreid is the Academic Director of the University Honors Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, University at Buffalo, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY 14260-1300, and the Director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/projects/cases/case.html); e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Using Novels as Bases for Case Studies: Michael Crichton's State of Fear and Global Warming. Contributors: Herreid, Clyde Freeman - Author. Journal title: Journal of College Science Teaching. Volume: 34. Issue: 7 Publication date: July-August 2005. Page number: 10+. © 2009 National Science Teachers Association. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.