Elizabeth Kolbert Dissects and Destroys SuperFreakonomics

Elizabeth Kolbert thoroughly dissects and destroys SuperFreakonomics authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s thinking on global warming and climate change in a very astute New Yorker article. It’s long, but well worth the read. Here’s a particularly choice sample:

Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science—or, for that matter, in science of any kind. It’s their contention that they don’t need it. The whole conceit behind “SuperFreakonomics” and, before that, “Freakonomics,” which sold some four million copies, is that a dispassionate, statistically minded thinker can find patterns and answers in the data that those who are emotionally invested in the material will have missed. (The subtitle of “Freakonomics,” published in 2005, is “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.”) In this way, Levitt and Dubner claim to have solved the mystery of why crime, after soaring in the nineteen-eighties, dropped in the nineteen-nineties. (The explanation, they say, is the legalization of abortion, some eighteen years earlier.) They also have proved—at least to their own satisfaction—that names like Ansley and Philippa will be popular for girls in the coming decade, that reading to your kids doesn’t matter, and that drunks should be encouraged to drive rather than walk.

Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is a climatologist who, like Levitt, teaches at the University of Chicago. In a particularly scathing critique, he composed an open letter to Levitt, which he posted on the blog RealClimate.

“The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them,” he observes. “The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking.” Pierrehumbert carefully dissects one of the arguments that Levitt and Dubner seem to subscribe to—that solar cells, because they are dark, actually contribute to global warming—and shows it to be fallacious. “Really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you,” he writes, that this claim “is complete and utter nonsense.”

But what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” isn’t the authors’ many blunders; it’s the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are. Leaving aside the question of whether geoengineering, as it is known in scientific circles, is even possible—have you ever tried sending an eighteen-mile-long hose into the stratosphere?—their analysis is terrifyingly cavalier. A world whose atmosphere is loaded with carbon dioxide, on the one hand, and sulfur dioxide, on the other, would be a fundamentally different place from the earth as we know it. Among the many likely consequences of shooting SO2 above the clouds would be new regional weather patterns (after major volcanic eruptions, Asia and Africa have a nasty tendency to experience drought), ozone depletion, and increased acid rain. Meanwhile, as long as the concentration of atmospheric CO2 continued to rise, more and more sulfur dioxide would have to be pumped into the air to counteract it. The amount of direct sunlight reaching the earth would fall, even as the oceans became increasingly acidic. There are eminent scientists—among them the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen—who argue that geoengineering should be seriously studied, but only with the understanding that it represents a risky, last-ditch attempt to avert catastrophe…

[read the whole article in the New Yorker]


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1 Comment on "Elizabeth Kolbert Dissects and Destroys SuperFreakonomics"

  1. Peter Max | Nov 10, 2009 at 9:03 pm |

    The only academic field that's free of self-important specialist “qualified” interpretation is mathematics (including statistics). The only objective truths are those that can be mathematically delimited. Everything else is speculation and interpretation. The “truth value” that can be assigned to a statement is limited to what experts believe to be true and that can only be a linguistic consensus. Eventually this consensus will be available via search engines which assign a truth value to any statement based on statistical analysis. There is far more opinion-based science that's expressed as fact than there is statistical analysis presented as definitive knowledge. Hard science long ago rejected “sociology” but public relation firms regularly use statistical models to predict or even manipulate outcomes of mass-social events such as elections. For instance: how many times and at what time of day should ads be run to create a statistically verifiable change in public opinion?

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