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Oct. 19 2009 - 6:01 am | 28 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Three ways SuperFreakonomics went wrong on climate change

SuperFreakonomics is out tomorrow, and the book is alreadsuper_freakonomics-thumb-228x344y embroiled in controversy. Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner no doubt intended to spark discussion, but they must be wondering what they walked into.

They’ve posted a couple of rejoinders on their blog, in which they say that 1) many of their critics haven’t read the book, and 2) that they’re being unfairly lumped in with those who argue that climate change isn’t a problem.

Well, the internet being what it is, the chapter in question has been posted online. I won’t link directly to the pdf, but Matthew Yglesias, no fan of strict IP controls, has no such qualms.

Both sides seem set to dive into the weeds with charges and countercharges of who fed what to which misquoted source. So it’s worth spending a few moments after the fold laying out, simply, where Levitt and Dubner went wrong.

1) Their biggest error is one of tone. The chapter begins with a parallel between modern worries about rising temperatures and a 1970s media scare, when a few articles warned that the earth was slipping into an ice age. Levitt and Dubner are masterful writers. They know the importance of framing an argument. If you believe that the scientific consensus is right, and that climate change is something to which we need to find a solution, then it’s a mistake to set the stage with a direct comparison to a false alarm.

Can their critics be blamed for thinking that Levitt and Dubner are downplaying the dangers of climate change? The whole chapter continues in the same dismissive vein. James Lovelock gets pulled on stage as an example of how alarmist the alarmists can be. Al Gore does a cameo as a naïve false messiah. A section on the uncertainties and complexity of climate science concludes with this observation:  “Then there’s this little-discussed fact about global warming: while the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased.”  [Italics theirs].

2) After devoting pages to the complexities of the climate system, Levitt and Dubner propose a simple solution. The chapter’s central argument is that behavioral change is difficult and expensive, so we’d better find a cheap, technological fix. Specifically, they propose channeling sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, enclosing the earth in a misty haze to deflect some of the sun’s warming rays. Or failing that, seeding the skies with “puffy white clouds.”

The problem is that this type of geoengineering is no more a solution to climate change than air fresheners are a fix for second-hand smoke or antiretroviral medication are a cure for AIDS. If the only challenge posed by rising carbon dioxide level was simple uniform warming of the earth, then it might work. But as Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist and blogger at RealClimate points out, the climate is a bit more complex.

Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.

3) Finally, contrarian takes can be fun. At times they can even offer a fresh view on a familiar problem. The problem is that on climate change SuperFreakonomics doesn’t offer anything new. One of the reasons Levitt and Dubner walked into a cannonade of criticism is that the ideas they’ve served up have been making the rounds for years. For Joe Romm, the Union of Concerned Scientists, RealClimate, et al, countering the arguments just meant dusting off old rebuttals.

Or to put it another way, Levitt and Dubner erred in choosing a subject that was actually important. As Paul Krugman puts it:

This is a serious issue. We’re not talking about the ethics of sumo wrestling here; we’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization. It’s not a place to play snarky, contrarian games.

SuperFreakonomics is out tomorrow, and the book is already embroiled in controversy. Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner no doubt intended to spark discussion, but they must be wondering what they walked into.

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/the-rumors-of-our-global-warming-denial-are-greatly-exaggerated/

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/global-warming-in-superfreakonomics-the-anatomy-of-a-smear/

They’ve posted a couple of rejoinders on their blog, in which they say that 1) many of their critics haven’t read the book, and 2) that they’re being unfairly lumped in with those who argue that climate change isn’t a problem.

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/global-warming-in-superfreakonomics-the-anatomy-of-a-smear/

Here’s Dubner:

If we weren’t convinced that global warming was worth worrying about, we wouldn’t have written a chapter about proposed solutions.

http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/10/steven-dubner-digs-the-hole-deeper.php

Well, the internet being what it is, it should come as no surprise that the chapter in question has been posted online. I won’t link directly to the pdf, but Matthew Yglesias, no fan of strict IP controls, has no such qualms.

Both sides seem set to dive into the weeds with charges and countercharges of who fed what quote to what misquoted source. So it’s worth spending a few moments laying out, simply, where Levitt and Dubner went wrong.

1) Their biggest error is one of tone. SuperFreakonomics begins with a parallel between modern worries about rising temperatures and a media scare in the 1970s, when a few articles warned that the earth was slipping into an ice age. Levitt and Dubner are masterful writers. They know the importance of framing an argument. If you believe that the scientific consensus is right, and that climate change is something to which we need to find a solution, then it’s a mistake to set the stage with a direct comparison to a false alarm.

The whole chapter continues in the same dismissive vein. They compare people concerned about global warming to adherents of a dogmatic religion. James Lovelock gets pulled on stage as an example of how alarmist the alarmists can be. Al Gore does a cameo as a naïve false messiah. A section on the uncertainties and complexity of climate science concludes with this observation: “Then there’s this little-discussed fact about global warming: while the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased.” [Italics theirs].

Can their critics be blamed for thinking that Levitt and Dubner are downplaying the dangers of climate change?

2) A devoting pages to the complexities of the climate system, Levitt and Dubner propose a simple solution. The chapter’s central argument is that behavior change is difficult and expensive, so we’d better find a cheap, technological fix. Specifically, they propose channeling sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, enclosing the earth in a misty haze to deflect some of the sun’s warming rays. Or failing that, ceding the skies with “puffy white clouds.”

The problem is that this type of geoengineering is no more a solution to climate change, than air fresheners are a fix for second-hand smoke or antiretroviral medication are a cure for AIDS. If the only challenge posed by rising carbon dioxide level was simple uniform warming of the earth, then it might work. But as Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist and blogger at RealClimate points out, the earth is a bit more complex.

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/10/why-levitt-and-dubner-like-geo-engineering-and-why-they-are-wrong/

Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.

3) Finally, Contrarian takes can be fun. At times they can even offer a fresh view on a familiar problem. The problem is that on climate change SuperFreakonomics doesn’t offer anything new. One of the reasons Levitt and Dubner walked into a cannonade of criticism is that the ideas they’ve served up have been making the rounds for years. For Joe Romm, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and RealClimate, countering the arguments just meant dusting off old rebuttals.

Levitt and Dubner erred in choosing a subject that was actually important. Or as Paul Krugman puts it:

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/weitzman-in-context/

This is a serious issue. We’re not talking about the ethics of sumo wrestling here; we’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization. It’s not a place to play snarky, contrarian games.


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  1. collapse expand

    Thanks for staying on this story. I was almost going to buy this book, but if they got global warming that wrong, not sure I want to bother reading them about anything else…

    • collapse expand

      Thanks much. Yeah, if that chapter is anything to go by, then it’s best maybe to at least wait for the paperback…

      It’s too bad. They’re great writers, and I very much enjoyed their first book. Of course, the material in Freakonomics was drawn from years of research. If the global warming material is anything to go by, it seems they may have scratched bottom.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Yeah, the first was based a lot on their own work. This one seems like kneejerk contrarianism based on misreading other’s research and wanting to sell books. They’ve done massive damage to their brand.

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