I frequently get asked how I plan on following up The Republican War on Science, a book that received a considerable amount of attention (and that will probably continue to do so, since there’s still a paperback to look forward to). This is a subject to which I’ve devoted a lot of thought–probably too much thought. Over the past year I’ve been hot and cold on a number of different book ideas, investing too much energy in ideas that didn’t merit it and feeling unjustifiably fickle about ideas that probably should have turned into books (like, for example, a narrative account of the Dover evolution trial).
Meanwhile, I’ve remained officially mum as to my thought process. But no longer. Here it is: I’m doing a book on the subject of hurricanes and global warming. Full stop.
What kind of book? Well, right now it’s extremely early in the research and writing process for me, which means there’s much that I myself don’t know yet about how the project will turn out as I apply myself to it over the course of the year. But in this post, I will try to briefly outline why I made this particular choice, why I felt it was important to announce it here, and what I can say at this point about what I envision for the new book.
One reason that The Republican War on Science succeeded, I’m convinced, is that its actual publication was preceded by nearly two years of devoted blogging on its subject matter, which really helped focus attention on the issue of politics and science while also allowing me to develop my thinking in response to dedicated input from blog readers. For the next book, I plan on doing the same–starting right now. That’s why it’s relevant to all of you folks. (There are already some blogs that have a lot to say on this subject, including Prometheus and Real Climate. I encourage you to check them out.)
Blogging on this topic will take some getting used to, however, because the new book seems certain to diverge significantly from the old one. True, broadly speaking I’m still writing about politics and science (likely to be my area of focus for some time). But in tone and approach, the new book will likely have a different tack–and so will its corresponding blog posts.
The Republican War on Science was argumentative, even polemical, in nature. For this I make no apologies, because I was writing at a time when something very strong needed to be said about attacks on science throughout our government and public life. That the book struck a chord is a testament, I think, to the fact that my calculation was correct. People were outraged, and I was the guy who wasn’t equivocating or pulling punches. I spoke to the moment–a moment, incidentally, that shows no sign of ending any time soon.
But some reviewers of RWoS, like David Appell, pointed out something that really stuck with me: The book I’d produced, whatever its merits, wasn’t really a work of purebred science writing. Rather, it was the hybrid work of a political journalist writing about science. That’s not to say I got the science wrong: I had my statements vetted by experts, and they seem to have stood up very well. However, because I pulled together so many different scientific subjects, and spent most of my time highlighting various political outrages, I really didn’t get a chance to explain many of the fascinating complexities of the scientific issues involved.
By contrast, with my new project, I get much more of a chance to be a real science writer, to talk about scientists, their cutting edge work, its complexities, its uncertainties, its implications. It’s a chance to grow as an author, to try something newer and in some ways much more difficult–and I welcome that.
To be sure, there are some strong echoes of RWoS. Global warming is, again, a central subject (although the new debate is much more complicated than a story of consensus versus deniers). And I’ll be writing about a very political science fight, one that has seen allegations of scientific suppression at federal agencies and debates canceled at scientific meetings because “the dispute had grown so nasty it was too risky to put [two rival scientists] in the same room.”
However, unlike with RWoS, the goal of the new book is not really to make an argument so much as to tell a story: About high-profile scientific findings linking increasing hurricane strength to global warming, the scientists who have produced them, the highly political (and sometimes personal) debate those findings have triggered, and the possible implications of the work.
I chose this topic precisely because it is controversial. But while there’s plenty of animosity in the hurricane-climate field right now, it’s also true that if you step back you can see science working precisely the way it’s supposed to, in all of its gloriously human messiness.
Indeed, it will be fascinating to watch this debate unfold–and unfold it certainly will. There are scientific papers in the works that should sharpen and clarify this battle. Another hurricane season is coming that may (or may not) raise the stakes considerably. And there are long-term decisions being made–about how and whether to protect and rebuild places like New Orleans–that will have to consider what kind of a world we’re moving into with respect to both hurricane behavior and sea level rise over the next century or more. (For more on this, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s feature in the latest issue of the New Yorker.)
So, that’s the project, and expect me to be blogging here on various aspects of it in the coming months. I hope that you’ll all join in the discussion. Since I have an unrelated article to write at the moment, I’m going to leave this post up high for a day and not put anything on top of it. I look forward to all of your reactions.
P.S.: This isn’t the last you’ll hear about The Republican War on Science. Not by a long shot. There will be a paperback in the fall (much more on that later), more book news soon, and I’m continuing to travel and speak; see here for a newly updated list of events…
P.P.S.: For those not familiar with the debate over hurricanes and global warming, click here for more background reading on the subject than you could possibly get through in a day’s time…