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Oct. 17 2009 - 12:41 pm | 2 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

SuperFreaks vs. the world

super_freakonomics-thumb-228x344Joe Romm is on a tear [update: and he shows no sign of stopping]. SuperFreakonomics (the sequel to Freakonomics) has a chapter questioning the science of global warming, and he’s not going to have it. Romm deploys his trademark deluges of statistics and invectives (he posts a devastating response from one of the scientists quoted in the book). But he’s most touching when he considers the stakes.

Obviously, a book that contains the sentence, “Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception,” is anti-scientific.  But probably the worst thing about the book from the point of view of spreading anti-scientific disinformation is the use of the phrase “global cooling” in the subtitle, SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.  Millions of people who never even buy the book will now be subjected to that long-debunked piece of nonsense in book reviews and elsewhere.

I haven’t seen the book (and I enjoyed its predecessor), but I understand Romm’s sentiment. Everybody loves a contrarian take, but given the long history of misinformation on the subject of climate change, do we really need another?

Romm’s original post has been picked up across the blogosphere, and the authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, have promised a rebuttal. I, for one, am looking forward to the dialogue. In the meantime, it’s up to Ezra Klein to try for the coup de grâce with a take down of book’s first page, where Levitt and Dubner argue that mile-for-mile drunk walking is more dangerous than drunk driving.

A lot of those miles driven drunk are probably miles driven by someone who’s had a couple of glasses of wine and still feels competent to drive, even though their blood alcohol level is a shade above 0.8. That is to say, a lot of those miles are driven by someone who’s not very drunk. A lot of those miles walked drunk are probably walked by someone who is so wrecked that his friends wouldn’t let him drive, or he never would imagine trying. It is, of course, safer to be less drunk than more drunk when you’re around vehicles, whether you’re walking near them or driving by them.

You can go on and on in this vein. It’s terrifically shoddy statistical work. You’d get dinged for this in a college class. But it’s in a book written by a celebrated economist and a leading journalist. Moreover, the topic isn’t whether people prefer chocolate or vanilla, but whether people should drive drunk. It is shoddy statistical work, in other words, that allows people to conclude that respected authorities believe it is safer for them to drive home drunk than walk home drunk. It’s shoddy statistical work that could literally kill somebody. That makes it more than bad statistics. It makes it irresponsible.

Romm asks that you digg his original post on the subject here.

[Update: the authors of SuperFreakonomics reply to Romm's "smear."; RealClimate takes on their argument. It's unlikely this is going away anytime soon.]

Coup de grâce


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