"It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting our high technology from WEAPONRY to LIVINGRY."
- Buckminster Fuller (h/t Suzy Waldman)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Romm vs Freakshow II

The SuperFreaknomics fiasco (a sequel to a very popular book on economics which has a very bad chapter on climate change) is a case where Joe Romm's approach is entirely appropriate. I hope Joe will forgive me for quoting a good chunk of his article, which includes some forthright statements by Ken Caldeira. It's something nobody should miss.

One sentence about Caldeira in particular is the exact opposite of what he believes (page 184):
Yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.
Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira, and when he saw a version from Myrhvold, he objected to it. But Levitt and Dubner apparently wanted to keep it very badly — it even makes the SuperFreakonomics Table of Contents in the Chapter Five summary “Is carbon dioxide the wrong villain?” It fits their contrarian sensibility, but it makes no actual sense.

Here is what Caldeira really believes:
I believe the correct CO2 emission target is zero. I believe that it is essentially immoral for us to be making devices (automobiles, coal power plants, etc) that use the atmosphere as a sewer for our waste products. I am in favor of outlawing production of such devices as soon as possible….

Every carbon dioxide emission adds to climate damage and increasing risk of catastrophic consequences. There is no safe level of emission.

I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies … It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.

I am in favor of fire insurance but I am also against playing with matches while sitting on a keg of gunpowder. I am in favor of research into geoengineering options but I am also against carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon dioxide emissions represent a real threat to humans and natural systems, and I fear we may have already dawdled too long. That is why I want to see research into geoengineering — because the threat posed by CO2 is real and large, not because the threat is imaginary and small.

Emphasis added by me. See the rest of Joe's article here.

Update: See also Ezra Klein (h/t Things Break): "The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one."

Update: The authors, Dubner and Levitt, are busily jumping the shark, now calling critics "fraudulent".


Patrick said...

Thanks for this essay. Joe Romm writes so much that it is hard to keep up with the man.

Lou Grinzo said...

Given the number of copies this book is likely to sell, I think we'll be debunking it for a very long time.

I would love to ask the publisher why they let this go out the door with their name on the spine. They'd probably fall back on the same old, "there's no consensus" nonsense, likely with a little First Amendment appeal thrown in, but it would be interesting to see and hear the response in person.

King of the Road said...

I left the following comment on their blog site:

It's sad and actually pathetic that Levitt and Dubner selectively quoted and misrepresented the opinions and beliefs of Ken Caldeira. Clearly, their incentive is to sell books and ads on their blog site. Bully for them. It's even reasonable for them to opine on subject areas in which they have minimal knowledge. But misrepresentation is a different matter.

I have the same reaction now to them that I have to newspapers, i.e., whenever they happen to cover a topic on which I have specialist knowledge newspapers invariably (without exception that I can think of) make huge factual errors. Therefore, I assume that they make huge factual errors on everything they report. Levitt and Dubner are now in the same category.

Obviously, facts are merely obstacles to be overcome in order to carry the torch for their self-styled "rogue economist" personas. A shame, since I enjoyed and believed their first book, now I will reconsider.

It hasn't (yet) passed moderation.

Anna Haynes said...

King of the Road ("I left the following comment on their blog site"), could you provide the URL please? That way we can check & see if it went up.

If my most recent "awaiting moderation" comment is approved, it'll be here; it's just a nice quiet link to the reviews compendium on Manpollo.

Dubner&Levitt don't seem to take criticism well - to my knowledge, none of my other (multiple) attempts to provide links to science-oriented reviews have survived moderation over on their blog.

I'm reluctant to broach this possibility - particularly since I don't know them personally, and for some personality types, sweeping criticism under the rug *would* be expected behavior - but at what point does it become more parsimonious to believe that they're not doing this of their own free will?

If history is "all the data that we have so far"...it shouldn't be unthinkable, it has happened before.

Anna Haynes said...

On reading more closely, I'm glad to see that some comments pointing to critical reviews *are* surviving moderation on at least the most recent Freakonomics blog post.

Anna Haynes said...

(correction, not *the* most recent Freakonomics post; but it is recent, having been posted today.)

King of the Road said...


I commented here and the comment is still awaiting moderation. It's true that there are comments at that post that are critical of Levitt and Dubner's warming chapter.

Marion Delgado said...

Good for Ken Caldeira - he's the Carl Wunsch this time around.

Michael Tobis said...

Interesting point, Marion.

Caldeira is handling it much better than Wunsch did, or in fact than Schneider recently did with the Not Just Evil nonsense.

You can't stop people from misrepresenting you, but you can call them on it after the fact, which makes you and the cause of truth look much better than a) whining and trying to have a reasonable exchange with unreasonable people per Wunsch, or b) demanding you not be mentioned at all per Schneider.

The malign impact of the SuperFreakonomics botch is much attenuated thanks to Caldeira's quick and appropriate responses. We owe him a huge double debt of gratitude in not only substantially defusing the SuperFreaknomics book but showing us how to handle such situations in future.

King of the Road said...

As an update, my comment along with several other very critical comments has been posted. Several have called for L & D to respond but that hasn't happened.

Marion Delgado said...

Actually, I happen to agree with Michael's modification of my point in every detail, about both Wunsch and Schneider. Which means double stars for Caldeira.