I owe the term fuckyounomics to d-squared at Crooked Timber, who subtitled his imaginary pop-econ best-seller, “How Nobody In The World Knows Jack Shit Except Economists.” At that point, the allusion to Levitt and Dubner’s original best-seller should have been clear enough to anybody: even in 2008, Freakonomics was still all over the charts.
In 2009, Superfreakonomics appeared. The Olympic-class shark-jumping implicit in its subtitle (“Global cooling, patriotic prostitutes & why suicide bombers should buy life insurance”) pretty much ratified d-squared’s sneer, as far as I was concerned. Maybe I would be better off not reading either book? Maybe I should instead spend my econ-specific reading time on more serious figures in the field, on less mercenary scholars who might actually be trying to tell us something useful?
I took a pass.
But then a friend pressed the latter title on me recently. Well, OK. Could be fun, right? Probably harmless anyway. I vaguely recollected some controversy over the book’s treatment of global warming debate, and mentioned this to my friend. He earnestly assured me that the chapter addressing AGW was a must-read. Hmm.
I’d been looking forward to a little light reading, and had planned to read Superfreakonomics from beginning to end. But I made the mistake of turning to the Global Cooling chapter first.
Right out of the gate, Levitt and Dubner treat an ephemeral nine-day-wonder piece of bad science reporting in Newsweek in the mid-70s as if it represented anything like the prevailing opinion of climatologists at the time. In 2006, fully three years before Superfreakonomics appeared, Newsweek issued a retraction of this story (31 years late; better late than never, I suppose.) By way of apologia, a Newsweek editor wrote:
“How did NEWSWEEK—or for that matter, Time magazine, which also ran a story on the subject in the mid-1970s—get things so wrong? In fact, the story wasn’t “wrong” in the journalistic sense of “inaccurate.” Some scientists indeed thought the Earth might be cooling in the 1970s, and some laymen—even one as sophisticated and well-educated as Isaac Asimov—saw potentially dire implications for climate and food production.”
No soap, Newsweek.
Note the “all the kids were doing it” excuse that their main competitor had stooped to similar bad science reporting. (The same Time magazine occasionally runs cover stories with titles like “Is God Dead?“, “Was Marx Right?“, and even “Is the Unabomber Right?” These days, folks, that’s called linkbait.)
“Even” Isaac Asimov got it wrong? What? And he got it wrong in the direction of what would have been the more exciting science fiction novel premise? And, uh, Asimov made his name in which genre, originally? (I still remember my great disappointment upon learning that Asimov changed his major in college because he couldn’t hack calculus. Which is really not that hard. He wasn’t exactly burnishing climatology credentials later in his career, as he cranked out his Guides — to the Bible, to Shakespeare, to … oh, I’m getting sad again.)
Conveniently left unmentioned by the not-quite-repentant Newsweek: the scientists who “thought the Earth might be cooling in the 1970s” had been talking in terms of tens of thousands of years. The idea that such a cooling trend would be any kind of threat to humanity in the foreseeable future was definitely not what they’d proposed. No, that was the breathless fabrication of some ambitious Newsweek hacks. Climate scientists of the time who studied near-term global climate change were at that point already pretty concerned about the implications of massive industrial-society GHG emissions. When they saw these magazine covers, they probably just frowned, growled “what is this popular-science crap” and went back to cranking out more FORTRAN code on punched cards.
OK, I grit my teeth. I do not give up so easily. Surely, the chapter would get better.
Next up: Levitt and Dubner cite James Lovelock as if he were somehow today’s last word in climatology. Well, Peter Stott of the Hadley center has said that Lovelock was “too alarmist” in The Revenge of Gaia. (Most climatologists are also a little leery of the hypothesis for which Lovelock is most famous.) Lovelock was always a little out there, and recently, he admitted it. I start to wonder: are Levitt and Dubner ever going to quote an actual working climatologist’s statement as made in a peer-reviewed journal?
I press on. This is no fun. But winners never quit and quitters never–
Blam: “The world’s ruminants are responsible for about 50 percent more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector.”
I hang my head: I’m reading Factoids Uber Alles. This particular canard is an overstatement of a misstatement in a 2006 FAO report (“Livestock’s Long Shadow“) whose main author had long since backed down on the claim. Even the later defenders of the report, in trying to debunk the debunking of the FAO report, can only come up with about half of the FAO’s original figure, and even then, they could only do it in the case of the U.S. The U.S. livestock GHG emissions aren’t representative. The full-lifecycle carbon intensity of the livestock sector in the U.S. is higher than in most of the rest of the developed world, which in turn is higher than in the developing world.
OK, now, I’m here not to debunk a lot of points Levitt and Dubner try to make. Or even to show where these authors appear to be, at best, disingenuous. Plenty of people already did that, years ago. Besides which, this blog post would be longer than Superfreakonomics‘ whole Global Cooling chapter, if I tried take on every ridiculous thing in it.
No, I have different mission here. A fecomantic one: how did this shit happen?
Let’s try some hypotheses:
(1) Incompetence: Levitt and Dubner aren’t scholarly enough.
Bzzt. I don’t even have to inhale to get this statement to flunk the sniff test. Levitt’s a recipient of the coveted John Bates Clark medal. This award has been described as harder to get than an econ Nobel, since it goes only to one recipient, only every other year. (Indeed, many who win it go on to win a Nobel.) He knows how to do homework. He’s been doing homework all his life, and he’s been doing homework for a living.
Dubner is a columnist for the New York Times; those people know from fact-checking.
(2) Ignorance: Levitt and Dubner are so out of touch with the debates swirling around AGW that they just took some clippings handed to them by an unpaid intern, spiced them up, and incorporated them into the book.
Bzzt. I’m sorry, but this goes under Incompetence. Any statement about AGW is going to be controversial (even the statement that it’s controversial.) How could they not know this? Thus, every statement on AGW cries out for fact-checking — which these guys know how to do. Any decent editor would make sure they were on the stick. But speaking of editors ….
(3) Coercion: when their editor saw the first draft of a carefully fact-checked chapter, it was nixed, with a red pencil notation saying, “Not enough red meat for the core audience of this book, which — as I must have told you 50 times now — is glibertarian, iconoclastic young men who delight in soundbite-length contrarian opinions.” When Dubner and Levitt took a close look at their contract, it revealed that the editor did, in fact, have the right to make such demands.
Plausible? I give this hypothesis about a 50%.
(4) Cooperation: notwithstanding whatever their personal opinions might be on AGW, they know that any publicity is good publicity, and that a string of tissue-thin factoids leading off this chapter, together with climate-skeptic sympathies expressed throughout, would feed word-of-mouth for book sales the way gasoline feeds a bonfire.
To put it another way: Superfuckyounomics. I could swallow this hypothesis, too. Even though it’s disappointing as hell.
(5) Belief: they are both full-on climate skeptics, and they didn’t go pawing through the technical details of the debates, looking for solidity, because they didn’t want to get all, like, confused and shit.
I’m sorry but I need to file this one under Ignorance and Incompetence. And you know how I stand on those hypotheses.
I admit there are some grounds for doubt about Cooperation and Coercion. For example, as far as I can make out, Levitt and Dubner say nothing whatsoever about ocean acidification in this chapter. They base their Nathan Myhrvold fanboi argument for geoengineering solely on the warming threat. And Nathan’s so smart, right? Hook, line and sinker.
But how do they not know? Industrial society CO2 emissions are not just a big experiment with the only atmosphere we’ve got — they are also an experiment with the only oceans we’ve got. Even by 2009, the results were coming in and they didn’t look good. Dubner, in particular, could hardly have missed the issue of ocean acidification. He was a writer for the paper of record as it reported on it. More likely, failing to mention it in the published chapter was a matter of either striking such mentions as inconvenient in marketing terms (Coercion) or knowing what not to say in the first place (Cooperation.)
Now, this blog is called fecomancy because I try to predict the future based on how people are shitting us. In the ever-shifting climate of opinion, I’m trying to carve out a little climatology niche. (Selling brown-stained, stinky, used umbrellas on eBay didn’t work out.) It’s pretty clear to me that Dubner and Levitt were shitting us, either out of pure mercenary intent or because they didn’t read the fine print. What does this mean for the future?
My fear is: more of the same. Here’s why:
Your average climate-skeptic layman is about as intelligent and educated as your average AGW believer — however little your average AGW believer would like to think so. That is, the more you believe that you’re too ignorant or not intelligent enough to have a decent opinion about AGW, the more likely it is you’ll just shrug and say you don’t know. But wait: the intelligent and educated all have access to the same facts. Why are they drawing such wildly different conclusions?
There’s a clue, I think, in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which says that the incompetent overestimate their abilities (while the competent slightly underestimate theirs). Climatology is, in actuality, a domain so complex and specialized that the overwhelming majority of those who consider its conclusions must do so on the basis of their beliefs about how science works — and about how it fails. Now, it would be foolish to suggest that science is never influenced by politics, especially where science touches on policy questions. The question is whether that’s happening here.
I believe that the overwhelming majority of those who have an opinion on AGW (one way or the other) are simply overestimating their ability to judge how well the science is being done. What’s striking, however, is how the skeptics cling to arguments long since demolished, and even to arguments nobody ever made. Even the really smart skeptics fall afoul of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. For example, Freeman Dyson has lamented that most climate scientists don’t realize that CO2 forcing effects are less-than-linear. (In fact, all climate modelers know this.) Even MIT’s semi-skeptic climatologist, Richard Lindzen, recently said that if we wait a while longer to see what’s really happening, we can always make the necessary changes to offset anything bad. (In fact, thermal coupling with the oceans means that warming is substantially delayed — once you slam on the brakes, you’re still fated to skid through the next six red lights.) And if Lindzen and Dyson have such feet of clay when they tread into this area ….
I hereby predict: we’re never going to run out of high-profile big-name bullshit on this issue.
But I knew that. I guess what really disappoints me is that I was hoping to have fun reading Superfreakonomics. Instead, I’m going to be compulsively checking every purported fact.