Joe Romm at Climate Progress:
Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception.
That staggeringly anti-scientific statement (page 170) is just one of many, many pieces of outright nonsense from SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. In fact, human-caused global warming is well-established science, far better established than any aspect of economics.
In other words: it’s illogical to believe in a carbon-induced warming apocalypse and believe that such an apocalypse can be averted simply by curtailing new carbon emissions.
Hard to believe such a staggeringly illogical statement (page 203) comes from Levitt and Dubner, the same folks who wrote the runaway bestseller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist explores the Hidden Side of Everything.
For the record, it’s perfectly logical to believe that — indeed, I daresay most of the world’s leading climate scientists believe that if you could curtail all new carbon emissions (including from deforestation) starting now (or even starting soon), you would indeed avoid apocaplyse. None, however, would use the loaded word “simply” I’m sure and most, like Hansen, would like to go from curtailing emissions to being carbon negative as soon as possible. The Superfreaks, however, are simultaneously skeptical of global warming science, critical of all mitigation measures, but certain that geo-engineering using sulfate aerosols is the answer.
“Rogue” is a good word for Levitt, but I think “contrarian” is more apt. Sadly, for Levitt’s readers and reputation, he decided to adopt the contrarian view of global warming, which takes him far outside of his expertise. As is common among smart people who know virtually nothing about climate science or solutions and get it so very wrong, he relies on other smart contrarians who know virtually nothing about climate science or solutions. In particular, he leans heavily on Nathan Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft, who has a reputation for brilliance, which he and the Superfreaks utterly shred in this book:
“A lot of the things that people say would be good things probably aren’t,” Myrhvold says. As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12% gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat — which contributed to global warming.”
Impressive — three and a half major howlers in one tiny paragraph (p 187). California Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld called this “patent nonsense,” when I read it to him. And Myhrvold is the guy, according to the Superfreaks, of which Bill Gates once said, “I don’t know anyone I would say is smarter than Nathan.” This should be the definitive proof that smarts in one area do not necessarily translate at all
In olden days, we called such folks Artistes of Bullshit, but now I’m gonna call them F.A.K.E.R.s — Famous “Authorities” whose Knowledge (of climate) is Extremely Rudimentary [Error-riddled? I’m still working on this acronym].
The most famous FAKER was Michael Crichton. I thought Freeman Dyson was the leading FAKER today, but Myhrvold makes Dyson sound like James Hansen. I will devote an entire blog post to the BS peddled here by Myhrvold (who now runs Intellectual Ventures) because I’m sure he’s got the ear of a lot of well-meaning, influential, but easily duped, people like Levitt and Dubner — see Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’, Part 2: Who else have Nathan Myhrvold and the Groupthinkers at Intellectual Ventures duped and confused? Would you believe Bill Gates and Warren Buffett?
But before people begin believing that the problem with Super Freakonomics is that it annoys environmentalists, let’s be clear: The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one. This is evident from the very first story on the very first page of the book.
Under the heading “putting the freak in economics,” the book lays out its premise: Decisions that appear easy are actually hard. Take, for example, a night of drinking at a friend’s house. At the end of the night, you decide against driving home. This decision, the book says, seems “really, really easy.” As you might have guessed, we’re about to learn that it’s not so easy. At least if you mangle your statistics.
The next few pages purport to prove that drunk walking is eight times more dangerous than drunk driving. Here’s how they do it: Surveys show that one out of every 140 miles driven is driven drunk. “There are some 237 million Americans sixteen and older; all told, that’s 43 billion miles walked each year by people of driving age. If we assume that 1 out of every 140 of those miles are walked drunk — the same proportion of miles that are driven drunk — then 307 million miles are walked drunk each year.”
“If we assume.”
But why should we assume that? As the initial example demonstrates, a lot of people walk drunk when they would otherwise drive drunk. That substitution alone suggests that a higher proportion of walking miles are drunk miles. Other people walk, or take transit, when they know they’ll be drinking later. That’s why they’re walking and not driving. That skews the numbers and makes it impossible to simply “assume” parity.
Superfreakonomics appears to contain a lot of nonsense climate contrarianism. Major media organizations are normally extraordinarily bad at policing the people who write for them in terms of accurate presentation of scientific information, so I’m pretty sure Leavitt and Dubner can get away with totally misrepresenting the climate impact of solar power. Still, it is worth dwelling a moment on the fact that their critique of photovoltaic literally rests on the idea that PV cells are black whereas in reality they’re usually blue.
Correctly ascertaining the color of widely available macroscopic objects is not much to ask from authors.
Bradford Plumer in TNR:
In just a few dozen pages, Dubner and Levitt manage to repeat the myth that the scientific consensus in the 1970s predicted global cooling (quite untrue), imply that climatologists are unaware of the existence of water vapor (no, they’re quite aware), and traffic in the elementary misconception that CO2 hasn’t historically driven temperature increases (RealClimate has a good article to help with their confusion). The sad thing is that Dubner and Levitt aren’t even engaging in sophisticated climate-skepticism here—there’s just a basic unwillingness to gain even a passing acquaintance with the topic. You hardly need to be an award-winning economist to do that.
What’s more, as Joe Romm reports, the main scientist that Levitt and Dubner actually interviewed, Ken Caldeira, says they’ve completely twisted and mischaracterized his views—a glaring bit of journalistic malfeasance. And, as Matt Yglesias points out, one of Dubner and Levitt’s arguments rests on the (demonstrably wrong) premise that solar panels are always black. Now, as a journalist, I’m all in favor of having people write about things they’re not an expert in—and mistakes do happen—but this is a little absurd.
Meanwhile, over at The New York Times website, Dubner is complaining that critics are all engaged in “shrillness” (without linking to any of the criticisms of his book) and appears to be quietly removing comments when readers attempt to point to Connolley or Romm’s critiques. Guess they don’t make hard-charging contrarians like they used to.
At first glance, though, what it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous. Ann Coulter is making sense! Bush is good for the environment! You get the idea.
Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counterintuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.
It looks as if Superfreakonomics has gone way over that line.
Tim Lambert at Science Blogs
Melanie Fitzpatrick at Grist
The Union of Concerned Scientists has a bullet point critiques of the book here.
Stephen J. Dubner in NYT:
We have a chapter in SuperFreakonomics about global warming and it too will likely produce a lot of shouting, name-calling, and accusations ranging from idiocy to venality. It is curious that the global-warming arena is so rife with shrillness and ridicule. Where does this shrillness come from? Some say that left-leaning activists have merely borrowed their right-leaning competitors from years past. A reasonable conjecture?
Steven Levitt in NYT:
We are working on a thorough response to these critics, which we hope to post on the blog in the next day or two. The bottom line is that the foundation of these attacks is essentially fraudulent, as we’ll spell out in detail. In the meantime, let us just say the following.
Like those who are criticizing us, we believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon and that global warming is an important issue to solve. Where we differ from the critics is in our view of the most effective solutions to this problem. Meaningfully reducing global carbon emissions has proven to be difficult, if not impossible. This isn’t likely to change, for the reasons we discuss in the book. Consequently, other approaches represent a more promising path to lowering the Earth’s temperature. The critics are implying that we dismiss any threats from global warming; but the entire point of our chapter is to discuss global-warming solutions, so obviously that’s not the case.
The statements being circulated create the false impression that our analysis of the global-warming crisis is ideological and unscientific. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Kevin Glass at Townhall:
Climateprogress.org is taking a very extreme interpretation of the word “curtail.” A standard conservative critique, which I believe is being made here by Levitt and Dubner’s book, goes something like this:
If you believe that global warming is a catastrophic problem that requires extreme action right now, you cannot also claim that we can combat it relatively painlessly. There must be sacrifices.
The global warming alarmists like Al Gore try to have their cake and eat it too by hyping up the near-term catastrophic implications of global warming but saying that all we need to do is start gradually curtailing (not immediately cutting to zero) carbon emissions.
Certainly if you believe that new carbon emissions are the problem, then you believe that cutting them to zero you would avoid the global warming apocalypse. This is impossible. Like it or not, the world still runs on carbon and will run on carbon by necessity for the foreseen future. If you believe that we’re at the carbon tipping point, gradual and (relatively) painless measures like Waxman-Markey are unacceptable. Catastrophic global warming alarmists cannot have their cake and eat it too.
Joseph Lawler at American Spectator:
The whole point of the original Freakonomics was also to be counterintuitive in a provocative way. Famously, the most controversial claim in Freakonomics, repackaged from Levitt’s doctoral dissertation, was that the legalization of abortion in the ’70s led to decreased crime in the ’90s. That findings of that study have been found over time to be less than robust. I would characterize abortion as an issue that is “both important and the subject of serious study.”
If Levitt was “just plain, unforgivably wrong” on the abortion/crime findings, I haven’t heard Krugman or anyone else on the left complain about it. But now that Levitt is applying that same questionable level of scholarship to the left’s pet issue, suddenly he has fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness, and is prioritizing shock value over academic rigor.
UPDATE: Stephen Dubner
UPDATE #2: Kevin Drum