Superfreakonomics, etc
October 18, 2009, 8:57 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Media

[Updated Monday morning to include Brad’s last post and Gavin’s take on Real Climate, an update I take note of up here because they’re both worth your time: More in subsequent post Monday pm]

As someone interested in geoengineering, and writing about it myself, I look forward to actually reading what Levitt and Dubner say on the subject in Superfreakonomics (Amazon US|UK) (you can download a copyright-challenged scan of the chapter here as of the time of writing). Once I’ve done so I may, if so moved, comment on it further, but I’ll try to keep this short [update: as you can see from the bottom of this post I did read it — and at the time of posting the xkcd cartoon at the top looks more apposite than ever]. From what I can gather: a) they make a case that geoengineering is a serious option and should be considered as such; b) they do so in a way that spectacularly fails to convince — and indeed enrages — a lot of people who are of a different opinion on this matter, partly because some of their material seems to be the sort of thing that denialists/sceptics/whatever say a lot, and wrong. Anyway, because I feel I should post something, I haven’t read the material and don’t really want to get into this in depth right now, here is a guide to what’s out there for those who want to track it.

Outrage central (how surprising) is Joe Romm’s Climate Progress. Gists follow (nb there’s a fair amount of overlap and repetition):

Post one: Seeing belief in climate change as being akin to religion is wrong, economics not a science, Nathan Myrhvold not all he’s cracked up to be [not fully convinced by JR on this]; Ken Caldeira, a major source for the relevant part of the book, feels misrepresented. This post originally came with a pdf of the chapter, but the publishers asked for it to be removed. It is also apparently the most trafficked post on Climate Progress this year

Post two: Evil geoengineering ideas of Myrhvold’s have corrupted Bill Gates and Warren Buffett; Pinatubo cooling, which lasted for a year or so, does not validate the idea that permanent stratospheric sheidls might do better.

Post three: Amazon feature that allows you to read relevant pages of the book has been disabled. Superfreaks wrong to say the world is cooling now, and that it was feared to be cooling catastrophically in the 1970s. Union of Concerned Scientists lists problems with the climate science in the chapter.

Post four: Superfreaks have denied be “deniers” — but JR has not accused them of this. Superfreaks appear, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, to have mischaracterised/misunderstood Martin Weitzman’s argument about catastrophic risks in the low probability part of the climate sensitivity distribution.

Post 5: Outsourced in large part to Brad Delong (see below). Disputes Dubner’s claim that the book was never readable on Amazon.

There will be more from Joe over the next few days. Dubner’s main response to critics (there was an earlier I-am-not-a-denier placeholder) came out after the fifth of these posts. Gist of the main post: Not a denialist. Disputes some of Joe’s specific points, promises more to come on some, notes Joe’s ideological stance. Key point: Ken Caldeira saw the draft twice, was asked for comments, mostly didn’t object. Quotes Ken in an email to Joe and since forwarded by Ken to Dubner:

I f&@?ed up. They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing

In a later email Ken expanded on his interactions with Romm

Rather than acting deliberately, I panicked and commented on things that I now wish I would have been silent on. It was obviously a mistake to let myself get drawn into this, and I learned a quick and hard lesson in public relations.

Dubner goes on to say that the relevant text was never searchable on Amazon. Its noticeable that this post focuses entirely on Romm, treating him as fons et origo of all other criticism. It doesn’t address the fact that the chapter has also been criticised by economist and colleague on fellow New York Times blogger Paul Krugman. Gists:

Krugman post 1: I trust Joe Romm, and I worry that superfreakomics guys love contrarianism for the sake of it. Fate of the planet too important for that.

Krugman post 2: Starting off with the global-believed-in-the-1970s story cuts credibility. They missed the point of Weitzmann’s analysis.

Krugman post 3: More on what Weitzmann actually said. Notes Dubner’s not-a-denialist post, doesn’t think it cuts it.


William Connelly (Stoat):

Diagnosis, in brief: (1) they write about stuff they clearly don’t understand (2) they pick a catchy reverse-common-wisdom nugget as a headliner without the having the slightest interest in whether it is true or not

William also offers chapter and verse on global cooling and other rhetoric borrowed from skeptics that the superfreaks use (rather confusingly, since they and their sources genuinely don’t seem to be deniers). He also has excellent taste in cartoons.

Tim Lambert (Deltoid):

Levitt and Dubner do not understand the climate science literature. This by itself would not be fatal, but what has taken them off the cliff is the Freakonomics formula: “What you thought you knew about X is wrong!”

There follow some mostly good points, made more concisely than Joe Romm does.

Brad Delong has taken various shots on the subject. Here is an exchange of emails with Dubner, and here are six specific questions. He also helpfully points readers towards 4 more favourable blog posts on the book from Bryan Caplan:

Overall, [the book]’s better than the original.  It’s still cutesy, but stronger in the “who cares?” factor.

Tim Harford:

[The geoengineering chapter] is a strong story, but it is also one-sided, portraying the geo-engineers as brilliant iconoclasts, dismissing the objections to geo-engineering as the knee-jerk reaction of the unreflective, and failing to convey the views of a single credible geo-engineering sceptic. A well-deserved swipe at Al Gore does not really count.

Joshua Gans:

There is nothing too wrong with [the geoengineering chapter]. Not enough for name calling. What the authors are doing is identifying the ‘economist’s angst’ in this whole discussion.

and Robert Waldmann

As far as I can tell, [the superfreaks’ critics] really don’t have very much to say against [geoengineering]. Rather they mainly object to the Steves’ proposal that we use [it] as an alternative to cap and trade. The argument against doing both seems fairly weak to me.

[Update: Then, in the optimistically entitled *sigh* last post on superfreakonomics I promise, Brad gives a full list of issues he and others have with the chapter (you need to have the pdf or a copy of the book to go through these properly). This is probably the best single place for a list of the problems that have been raised. His take home message:

It really does look to me like Levitt and Dubner:

  • went to Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures.
  • got wowed.
  • excitedly wrote up what they heard.
  • and then failed to do their intellectual due diligence about what they were told there.]

[Further update: Gavin has a post at Real Climate, which tends towards the straw-mannish, in that it suggests that geoengineering might be treated as a strategy for a world with no emission reductions, which I don’t think many people, if any, are really advocating (though people might argue it could come about anyway). But it is definitely worth reading. And it points to this very good post on the topic by Michael Tobis, which puts geoengineering, mitigation and adaptation into the context of interventions which are not mutually exclusive — a good place to put them]

Ezra Klein looks at other aspects of the book and the authors’ MO

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.

After all this I gave in and skimmed the chapter. It has some interesting discussions in it, but I think quite a few of the criticisms are well founded: there are what I take to be some errors,  some suggestio falsi, and some serious omissions.  I think there’s a structural delight in the contrarian which gets irksome, and I think building your understanding of geoengineering out of what is heard at an Intellectual Ventures meeting is not likely to give you a fully rounded view of the issue. I wish they had gone deeper. That said I am not convinced by all the criticisms, and I do think wider discussion of geoengineering — and indeed frank advocacy — is something to be hoped for. People need to say what they think should be done.

That said, last word for now to dsquared’s take on freakonomics in general:

My intuition is that Freakonomics has had its moment in the sun. The central selling point was always, basically, academic machismo; the presumption on the part of economists that because they were “smart” in the Larry Summers sense, they could turn their hand to anything and the rest of the world was bound to listen to them. Those days, to put it mildly, are gone.

Image from the wonderful xkcd, used under creative commons licence


6 Comments so far
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[…] Superfreakonomics, etc […]

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I’d encourage a closer look at the RealClimate post, particularly the link to their earlier post that discusses all the problems with using sulfate aerosols, and also the point that you have to have absolute confidence in climate models to trust in this kind of geoengineering, which L+D say they lack.

Comment by Brian Schmidt

Yo, Oliver – do you still believe that

a) the way out of climate change is an Apollo project for energy (but it’s not something you’d get around to mentioning, in a one hour radio interview on your book _Eating The Sun_, until someone calls to ask why climate change wasn’t mentioned);
b) Overfishing is more serious than ocean acidification?

Anna, still a bit concerned from your KVMR interview

Comment by Anna Haynes

On the interview I went with the way the interviewer was going, and he seemed pretty interested in other aspects of the book. An Apollo programme, no, more like a Manhattan project, but not exactly like that either, in the end. What I want is a large, coordinated and well funded programme set up in a way that fits the early 21st century (rather than the 1940s or 1960s), and for teh scientific community to accept that this needs doing more than other things.
On ocean acidfication, to date the disruption of the ecosystem by overfishing is surely vastly more important than acidification. In the future we shall see. People I talk to seem worried about reefs more than about open ocean ecosystems, and some are more worried about temperature bleaching than acidification. So I think its a serious issue and could be a drastically damaging one — but we know that overfishing is already a big bad thing.

Comment by Oliver

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