A bit more on Superfreakonomics

We’ve all spent more than enough time on this, but since my previous posts are getting some play (e.g., from Greg Mankiw) I’m going to take the time to write up a few more (concluding?) thoughts:

First: In an earlier post I wrote that “since Steven Levitt doesn’t do any research on climate economics my hunch is that Dubner is responsible for the misleading perspective in the book.” But my emails with Levitt do not support my hunch, so I’m backing away from it and throwing my hands up about who’s responsible. My apologies (I guess? :) to one or both of Levitt and Dubner for putting this hunch out there.

Second: I stand by what I wrote to Levitt earlier, which is this: “My perspective is that you are probably correct that there are few factual errors in the book (I’ll wait for the footnotes and let you know if I find any errors :) but that you are ignoring the overall thrust of the chapter, which is terribly misleading.”

Third: The best way I have of summarizing my conclusion about the “terribly misleading” thrust of the chapter—beyond my previous statement that, e.g., it’s misleading to divide the world into “true believers [who] bemoan the desecration of our earthly Eden” and “heretics [who] point out that this Eden… once became so naturally thick with methane smog that it was rendered nearly lifeless”—is by noting that my re-read of the chapter (see the caveat at the bottom) reveals the following:

  • ZERO statements that acknowledge the main conclusion of IPCC 2007, namely that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”
  • ZERO statements that acknowledge the main conclusion of IPCC 2001, namely that “[M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”
  • ONE statement that acknowledges the main conclusion of IPCC 1995, namely that “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” That statement comes on p 166: “There is essentially a consensus among climate scientists that the earth’s temperature has been rising and, increasingly, agreement that human activity has played an important role.”
  • ONE statement about climate science that would have looked seriously out of place ten years ago. That statement is on p 186: “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” (emphasis in original).

In my opinion Levitt and Dubner fail to acknowledge a decade’s worth of scientific consensus about climate change, and they compound this failure by making not-factually-incorrect-but-nontheless-terribly-misleading comments about “true believers” and “heretics” and about “agnostics [who] grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions”. Put these two pieces together and I think you have an explanation for why they are getting so much push-back from folks saying that their analysis is “ideological and unscientific” and why their statement that “nothing could be further from the truth” rings hollow, at least in my ear.

PS. My caveat for the analysis above is that my eye is relatively untrained (remember that I’m an economist, not a climate scientist :) and that I’ve only read the chapter two or three times.

10 responses to “A bit more on Superfreakonomics

  1. I have little experience in climate science, but I am familiar with a number of forms of scientific and engineering discourse.

    I read most of what Joe Romm wrote on this issue, and the language used does not match that of any reputable scientific or engineering paper or essay that I have read. After recognizing this, I was not surprised to see the email where Romm specifically requested a derogatory quote from Caldeira, even giving a suggestion as to the phrasing. I WAS surprised to read that Caldeira had been provided with a draft of the Superfreakonomics climate chapter and had given it his approval, without actually reviewing it.

    My conclusion is that neither side in this debate has proven their point in anything resembling a rigorous, scientific manner. But after observing the language and approach used by Romm, I find myself struggling against a tendency to dismiss all similar claims as propaganda. I do suspect that there are a number of facts supported by solid scientific evidence that align with Romm’s viewpoints, but the recent debate has not helped me to learn about them.

    One last thought. All I have read from the Superfreakonomics critics are that the authors are wrong and misleading about climate science. But it seems to me that the reason most people are so passionate about climate science is not the science itself, but rather the implications that climate has on our world, our lives, and the lives of our children. I would feel more engaged in the subject if the discussions focused on practical ways to improve the climate. Superfreakonomics presented one idea along those lines. I’d like to hear many more ideas.

  2. IPCC is just not credible.

    If it was it would present opposing facts.

    Economics may be a consensus game but not science.

    As an economist I would assume you would take the time to analyze the marginal impact of extreme measures like Cap and Trade.

  3. EconRob, there is a difference between scientific objectivity and journalistic objectivity.

    Example of journalistic objectivity: “Many scientists say the Earth revolves around the sun, but there are some who say it doesn’t.” (To wit: “Both sides of the story”)

    Example of scientific objectivity: “The balance of evidence forces us to conclude that the Earth revolves around the sun.” (To wit: “Go where the evidence leads”)

    Please explain how the former advances scientific understanding, or indeed has any place in scientific reports (such as the peer-reviewed literature the IPCC is based on.)

  4. Hi

    I’ve read all the blogs – Romm, yours and Freakonomics. I am not a scientist, nor an economist but I think I’m a critical thinker. To me, in the end you backed off correctly by saying there are few factual errors. Now you state your case by saying Levitt is “misleading.” But you state that there are few errors? So a simple question: In your mind could there ever be a legitamate different point of view from your own or are they all categorically “misleading?”
    This subject is no longer about neither economics nor science; it’s religion. Thanks to Levitt for at least trying to be open minded and offer some different points of view.

  5. Brian D

    I am a bit in a hurry but the cold fusion claims is one place where skepticism paid off. Oh, and the concept that the earth does rotate around the sun was not widely held and change was resisted. IPCC is about defending by deflecting criticism. IPCC is not settled science.

    So yeah, scientific skepticism is useful. No? IPCC cannot tolerate it. They are attacked personally (alinsky-style) as “deniers”. Makes one wonder, or should at least. Sorry I do not have time for a longer post.

    IPCC is not credible. Their “research” has a filter.

  6. EconRob

    In what way would not IPCC be credible? and what filter are you refering to? Btw the concept of ppv does not account for the “earth orbit around the sun” debate since that was in the 16th century and was in conflict with both religion and the wide held geocentric model(s) from Aristotle. Science is an entirely different thing today.

  7. Well put. But on consideration I give Justin Fox the laurels for best brief encapsulation of the issue:

    “Dubner and Levitt come across in the global warming chapter as a couple of dilettantes out to provoke more than enlighten”

    http://curiouscapitalist.blogs.time.com/2009/10/20/the-freakonomists-vs-the-world

  8. The idea that there is a *global temperature* AND that it is measurable remains complete bunk.

    Furthermore, the Earth is what, 4 billion years old?

    Extrapolating from a mere 50-100 year stretch of ostensible *climate change* would be like predicting the long run returns of a stock from a single price tick.

    If these climate scientists don’t epitomize *intellectual arrogance*, then who does?

    I found it hilarious that the authors are being lynched for this one chapter. But since so many of Freakonomics’ fans were clearly organic, Mac-loving, green-types…what did they expect? Know they customer, right?

    Personally, I thought their first book was way overrated.

  9. My cynical theory is that the chapter is an infomercial for Myrvhold’s firm. Was money exchanged? Maybe not. But they’re basically selling Myrvhold’s crazy scheme, ignoring the drawbacks, and denigrating the competition. That’s what you do when you’re making a sales pitch.

    (And, really, it’s not like Myrvhold accomplished anything amazing at Microsoft. Are we really sure we want Microsoft’s 1990s *CTO* in charge of saving the planet?)

  10. Thank you so much for these comments. I am currently in a very simple EC201 class here in the backwater of Oregon. Superfreakonomics was required reading for the class. The teacher was very clear in his approval of the climate chapter. I happen to have a B.S. from my earlier life. I am the lone voice in the class, when ever I object to the information due to invalid or complete lack of legitimate references, the class (19 yr olds), ridicules me (40 yr old). The climate chapter is obviously a sales pitch. I didn’t have anyone to share my view with, so again, thank you. Now, not so lonely in Oregon

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