Superfreakonomics

October 19, 2009

So I wrote a long and extremely angry post about the final chapter of the new Freakonomics book. (I read a PDF version of the final chapter, which now appears to have been removed at the publisher’s request. I’ll put up a link if I find one.) Ranting obscures the issues, though, so first off I’ll just do a link compilation.

Krugman has takedowns here, here and here. Brad DeLong has takedowns here, here and here. [Those last two links are especially good.] William Connolley and Tim Lambert both have excellent critiques. Yoram Bauman reproduces an all-too-revealing email exchange with Levitt here. Levitt’s initial smokescreen response is here. Dubner’s follow-up ‘rebuttal’ is here. The Romm post which Dubner chooses as the object of his counter-attack is here. Real Climate discusses the actual issues here. Lots more googleable stuff – but that’ll do for now.

I don’t really have anything substantive to add. But:

1) Even having read some of the online critiques, I was shocked by how ignorant and deceitful this chapter is. Do not take Dubner’s online summary as a fair representation of the chapter’s egregious contents.

2) This is a genuinely pernicious political intervention by figures with huge popular readership and (in Levitt’s case) considerable academic authority/credentials. I’m not sure I can think of another issue where spreading such falsehoods could have more serious negative consequences. Levitt and Dubner are no longer amusingly sloppy, more or less frivolous, pop-economists – writing and publishing this chapter is despicable. [Krugman: “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.”]

3) Some of the clearer evidence of deliberate, calculated deceit is getting a bit lost in the noise. So I’ll reproduce this contrast (via Lambert):

From the chapter:

In 2006 [Paul Crutzen] wrote an essay in the journal Climatic Change lamenting the “grossly unsuccessful” efforts to emit fewer greenhouse gases and acknowledging that an injection of sulphur in the stratosphere “is the only option available to rapidly reduce temperature rises and counteract other climatic effects”

From Crutzen’s paper:

By far the preferred way to resolve the policy makers’ dilemma is to lower the emissions of the greenhouse gases. However, so far, attempts in that direction have been grossly unsuccessful… Therefore, although by far not the best solution, the usefulness of artificially enhancing earth’s albedo and thereby cooling climate by adding sunlight reflecting aerosol in the stratosphere might again be explored and debated …

If sizeable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will not happen and temperatures rise rapidly, then climatic engineering, such as presented here, is the only option available to rapidly reduce temperature rises and counteract other climatic effects.

Finally, I repeat: the very best would be if emissions of the greenhouse gases could be reduced so much that the stratospheric sulfur release experiment would not need to take place. [My emphases]

Such calculated misrepresentation should not be treated with anything but contempt, or responded to with anything but condemnation. This book needs to be buried.

[UPDATE: Reading this back, I think highlighting the Crutzen example may give the misleading impression that Levitt and Dubner’s argument is built up out of citations of the academic literature. On the contrary – the chapter cites painfully few real climate scientists, relying for the most part on the speculations of Intellectual Ventures entrepreneurs. Those climate scientists that Levitt and Dubner do cite – notably Ken Caldeira – are demonstrably misrepresented. This is Caldeira, quoted in Dubner’s own ‘rebuttal’ post:

I do think there are a bunch of things in the chapter that give misimpressions.

On the line “carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight”:

That is just wrong and I never would have said it.

Go to Dubner’s post for some of the context of these. Caldeira also writes, politely: “I think everyone operated in good faith”. I disagree.

Hopefully a PDF of the chapter will resurface online at some point – it’s really hard to convey how terrible it is via quotation and paraphrase alone.]

[UPDATE II: This line of Levitt’s, from the email exchange linked above, is amusingly indicative of just how distant he and Dubner are from any kind of reputable scientific practice:

for the record, I am getting roughly an equal number of criticisms like yours from people who are on the other side saying we are too accepting of the current global warming thinking!

The obvious analogy here is a good one: if Levitt and Dubner had published a book critical of evolutionary biology, and had written a Sunday Times article entitled ‘Everything You Know About Evolutionary Biology Is Wrong’, and had followed this up by writing, in an email exchange, “I do think also that there is something to be said for raising some skepticism about evolutionary biology … its claims are stated and restated as if they are fact, when in practice I suspect, and good scientists agree, that there is enormous uncertainty” – it would not make things better to then add “for the record, I am getting roughly an equal number of criticisms like yours from creationists!” Because the creationists are wrong.

Those screeching sounds you hear in the distance are, I trust, the death throes of Levitt’s academic reputation.]

[UPDATE III: In case this post implies that Levitt and Dubner weren’t always disgraceful lying hacks, probably worth clarifying that they were. This 2005 paper by John DiNardo (pdf), does a pretty damn thorough job of shooting down the original book. Various people (e.g. The Economist‘s Free Exchange blog), are suggesting, in a stable-door-closing attempt to differentiate Levitt’s earlier work from this debacle, that this is what happens when Levitt moves outside his area of expertise. Well, presumably he wouldn’t be so dramatically ignorant if he were writing on a subject he knew something about. But I think this is more what happens when Levitt moves outside an intellectual area in which lies are the coin of the realm. Earlier retractions of ‘misleading’ statements about academics’ work haven’t done much to dent his prestige, after all. If you’re Levitt, you’ve probably been pretty thoroughly, and understandably, socialised into the idea that you can get away with pretty much anything you like. Perhaps this says something, not just about Levitt, but about the discipline of economics.]

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2 Responses to “Superfreakonomics”

  1. JCD Says:

    Someone ought to drive a stake into it and put it out of its misery.

  2. duncan Says:

    Indeed.

    On the other hand, according the the Financial Times:

    For fans of the multimillion-selling pop-economics book, Freakonomics, all that needs to be said is that the sequel’s title is an accurate description. This book is a lot like Freakonomics, but better.

    I think there’s a typo here. The reviewer, Tim Harford, meant to write:

    This book is a lot like Freakonomics, but more so.


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