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Superfreakonomics – Ooh Baby !

“The headlines have been harrowing to say the least. “Some experts believe that mankind is on the threshold of a new pattern of adverse global climate for which it is ill-prepared.” one New York Times article declared. It quoted climate researchers who argued that “this climate change poses a threat to the people of the world.” A Newsweek article, citing a National Academy of Sciences report, warned that climate change “would force economic and social adjustments on a worldwide scale.” Worse yet, “climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change or even to allay its effects.” Who in his or her right mind wouldn’t be scared of global warming ? But that’s not what these scientists were talking about. These articles, published in the mid-1970s, were predicting the effects of global cooling…”

And so, in just a few short paragraphs from Chapter 5, in the new Superfreakonomics book from the Freakonomicsts Levitt and Dubner, the authors show they’ve been taken in by a Climate Change sceptic Trojan horse.

Remember the tobacco lobby tactics ? “Doubt is our product” was their motto and modus operandi. The Superfreakers build doubt about the Science of Climate Change into their presentation right from the start.

It’s like saying, “Ooh baby ! In the 1970s the scientists said things could cool down badly. Now they say things could hot up wildly. Do they know what they’re talking about ? Can we trust them ? Why do they keep changing their minds ?”

Once you’ve placed the teensiest eeniest tiny doubt in peoples’ minds, the whole edifice can crumble all of its own accord.

It’s like hearing people say : “We can’t listen to the scientists, can we ? They keep changing their minds, and they don’t always 100% agree with each other and anyway, who’s paying for all those research grants ?”

Several people I know received the Freakonomics book as a birthday of Christmas gift. Please don’t buy this new super freaky book for anyone unless you also give them a list of the articles that debunk Chapter 5, and strong encouragement to read the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (or at the very least, the Synthesis Report on the Fourth Assessment Report).

I could spend a lot of time and effort compiling a list of the errors in this Chapter, but other people have already done this, with links and research papers and everything, so here I will merely present a few of the reviews from the last couple of days, and let the reader look everything up for themselves.

Just to say that the tone of this Chapter pretends to objectivity, but doesn’t think big enough, nor stand on adequate knowledge to cover the subject it is trying to overview, so falls foul in ending up repeating myth and legend.

It’s like reading something written by the Coal Industry, or the Tobacco interests back in the 1980s. It’s that bad.

It brings burping cows into the frame : but doesn’t consider the fact that cow Carbon is recycled into trees and more cows, so the total impact is less than digging up Coal and burning that Carbon that was formerly permanently sequestered into the air.

Then it gives these immortal sentences :-

“For a variety of reasons, global warming is a uniquely thorny problem. First, climate scientists can’t run experiments…”

But what have we human beings been doing with the Earth for the last 150 years but conducting a global scale experiment with this giant atmospheric chemistry set ? We put up Carbon Dioxide and the Earth got hotter. Can’t be clearer.

It’s making my head hurt, so I better stop and give you the links to other better reports than my own :-

“Why Everything in Superfreakonomics About Global Warming Is Wrong : Posted on: October 16, 2009 by Tim Lambert : I reviewed Freakonomics when it first came out and really liked it. So I was looking forward to the sequel Superfreakonomics. Unfortunately, Levitt and Dubner decided to write about global warming and have made a dreadful hash of it. The result is so wrong that it has even Joe Romm and William Connolley in agreement. So what went wrong? One possibility is that Freakonomics was superficially plausible but also rubbish, and it was only when they wrote about an area where I was knowledgeable that I noticed. But I don’t think this is the correct explanation. I’ve read the journal papers on sumo cheating, Lojack and abortion and crime that they cite in Freakonomics and they are fairly represented. Superfreakonomics, on the other hand, misrepresents the scientific literature on global warming. The difference here is that the papers cited by Freakonomics were Levitt’s own work and he understood them, while 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!”. If you want to apply this formula to global warming you can easily find many superficially plausible arguments on why the mainstream science is wrong. Bang those into your chapter on global warming without bothering to check their accuracy and the only work that remains is the tour to promote your book. But enough on why they got everything wrong. Let’s look at what they got wrong. My Global Warming Sceptic Bingo Card is a bit out of date but they manage to tick five boxes: global warming is a religion, ice cores show warming comes first, ice age predicted in the 70s, water vapour dominates and climate modelling isn’t scientific. William Connolley stopped when he had found ten serious errors, so I’ll continue where he left off and see if I can find ten more. To make it more of a challenge, I’m just going to look at the extract that appeared in the Sunday Times entitled “Why Everything You Think You Know About Global Warming Is Wrong” (not yet available from their website). And remember, this is on top of the ten serious errors that Connolley found…”

“Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’: New book pushes global cooling myths, sheer illogic, and “patent nonsense” — and the primary climatologist it relies on, Ken Caldeira, says “it is an inaccurate portrayal of me” and “misleading” in “many” places. : October 12, 2009 : “Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception.” That staggeringly anti-scientific statement (page 170) is just one of many, many pieces of outright nonsense from SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. In fact, human-caused global warming is well-established science, far better established than any aspect of economics…”

“Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’, Part 2: Who else have Nathan Myhrvold and the Groupthinkers at Intellectual Ventures duped and confused? Would you believe Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? : October 14, 2009 : This post will shock you. The sheer illogic and “patent nonsense” of the new book Superfreakonomics discussed in Part 1 is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s most worrisome is 1) who exactly has been peddling much of the nonsense and illogic to the authors — Nathan Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft — and 2) who else may have been persuaded by his bullshit. The Myrhvold connection deserves special focus because it may help explain three puzzling things…”

“Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’, Part 3: It takes a village to debunk their anti-scientific nonsense, but why did they stop Amazon from allowing text searches? : October 16, 2009…”

“Error-riddled Superfreakonomics, Part 4: They get the economics dead wrong, too, and their response to critics is full of misrepresentations, just like their book : October 17, 2009…”

“Part 5: Error-riddled Superfreakonomics claims Caldeira’s “research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain.” Caldeira updates his website to read “Carbon dioxide is the right villain.” : October 18, 2009…”

“Why Branson and SuperFreakonomics are wrong, in pictures 6 : Posted on 16 Oct 2009 : by David Roberts…”

“Stoat : Taking science by the throat… : SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling (and some other stuff)? : Category: (*) climate communication (*) generic stupidity (*) septic tripe : Posted on: October 13, 2009 by William M. Connolley : I liked Freakonomics, so I’m a bit sad to see the (inevitable) sequel being so hopelessly wrong. Probably this is a case of the old rule: whenever you see people write about stuff you know, they get it wrong. Joe Romm has a fairly characteristic attack; and just for a change I’ll agree with him; though he chooses odd bits to assault. It looks like the “global cooling” junk is just one chapter, but of course it is the only one I’ll pay any attention to…”

“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 (mind you, plenty of more respectable folk do the same) (3) they pick an expert to talk to, but since they don’t have a clue about the subject they don’t know how to pick a good expert, or even understand what the expert says (4) there is a grain of sense in there, but so badly wrapped in trash it is nearly unfindable. The entire piece is riddled with errors. Reading it all would be tedious. So, before reading it in detail I decided to set myself a target of 10 major errors and then stop. Kindly, Romm has provided a PDF of the offending chapter, so you can play along at home. (1) Global cooling. Alas, there are still fools who fall for this one. [[Global cooling]] on wiki is a fair place to start if you’re interested. That will point you to the definitive study on this issue, by Peterson, Connolley and Fleck. Still #1 on the AMS download lists, and this twaddle will keep it there a bit longer. This earlier post of mine will point you towards some other stuff. As I said in the intro, other people get this wrong – Iain Stewart did – and usually for the same reason: its a fun hook to hang a story on. Incidentally, the Freakonomics folk aren’t always wrong – p 167 has some sensible things to say about CO2 produced during food distribution that echo stuff that mt has been saying. If they’d stick to that, they’d be fine…Update; UCS didn’t think much of it either. I notice that they say “The authors claim climate models have a very wide range of future temperature projections (page 168).” which is quite funny since I quote them complaining that all the models produce the same answers…Update: Nurture don’t like it either…”

“October 17, 2009 : Correspondence on Global Warming and Superfreakonomics : Steve Dubner writes: Brad, It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm’s extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value. His attack is full of deception and outright lies. He makes it sound as if we somehow twisted and abused Caldeira’s research; nothing could be further from the truth. We will have to clear this up publicly, although as you suggest it will be hard to put out this fire no matter how wrongfully set. This is politics that’s being played now, nothing else. Also: yes, Romm posted a PDF of the chapter on his website, which the publisher, in its routine effort to pull pirated copies of its copyrighted material off the web, asked him to take down. As far as I know, it was never on Amazon; there’s been no censoring; we are talking about a book that hasn’t yet been published (when it is, I assume Amazon will post the searchable pages, as is typical), but Romm has done a great job of getting people to believe that a book they haven’t read is full of errors…”

“October 18, 2009 : *Sigh* Last Post on Superfreakonomics, I Promise : Sigh. So I finally got a copy of chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics. In the abstract I really like the idea of cheap geoengineering solutions to global warming. My personal favorite is a giant parasol 18,000 miles in diameter at L1 to absorb and then reradiate a chunk of sunlight in other bands. But I have never been able to find anyone here at Berkeley who (a) knows what they are talking about, and (b) agrees with Levitt and Dubner that we know that Al Gore efficiency-and-conservation solutions are much less cost-effective than Mt. Pinatubo geoengineering solutions in dealing with global warming. That NASA and Energy and OSTP should be working on and funding research into the possibilities of geoengineering is something everybody I talk to agrees with. But nobody I talk to agrees with Levitt and Dubner that efficiency-and-conservation efforts are futile, and that we should shut them down to bet all our chips on geoengineering. 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. Thus I have a little unsolicited advice for Levitt and Dubner. If I were them, I would abjectly apologize. And I would then start editing the chapter thus…

“Superfreakonomics Panned For Getting Global Warming 100% Wrong : Joe Weisenthal : Oct. 17, 2009 : Have Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner finally gotten too cute for their own good? The pair are masters at contrarian interpretations of everyday things, but they’re getting shellacked over their take on global warming in Superfreakonomics, the sequel to the highly successful Freakonomics. Tim Lambert over at ScienceBlogs rips them to shreds over their oh-so contrarian take that really what we’re experiencing is global cooling…”
“Steven Levitt: I’m Not A Global Warming Denier! : Joe Weisenthal : Oct. 18, 2009 : Steven Levitt, the economist of the Freakonomics duo, is responding to critics accusing him of phoney science in his new book Superfreakonomics. As we noted yesterday, critics are lambasting chapter 5 of the book, in which he supposedly talks about global cooling, rather than global warming being the main trend…”

“Superfreakonomics : Review by Tim Harford : Published: October 17 2009 : “Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance” : By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner…As for the final chapter on global warming, it is a striking discussion of geo-engineering, surveying various schemes for cooling down the planet rather than trying to prevent climate change by cutting carbon emissions. This 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. According to this chapter, the only reason everyone is making so much fuss about carbon dioxide is that they’ve never heard of geo-engineering, or are the kind of stubborn Luddites who think technology never solved anything. I have some sympathy with that view but the section nevertheless needed more balance…”

“From The Sunday Times : October 18, 2009 : Superfreakonomics: Everything you know about Global Warming is wrong : Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of the bestselling Freakonomics, are back to challenge more accepted views. This time they claim that CO2 may be good, trees are harmful and a giant hosepipe in space could save the planet…In a nondescript suburb of Seattle there’s a charmless and windowless building that used to be a Harley-Davidson repair shop. A sheet of paper taped to the door reads “Intellectual Ventures”. Inside is one of the most unusual laboratories in the world. There are lathes and mould makers and 3-D printers, many powerful computers and a fish tank for zapping malarial mosquitoes with lasers. Intellectual Ventures (IV) is an invention company. Scientists and puzzle solvers of every variety dream up processes and products and file patent applications, more than 500 a year. Nathan Myhrvold — a polymath who as a young man did quantum cosmology research at Cambridge with Stephen Hawking — co-founded IV nine years ago. Myhrvold, now 50, recalls watching Doctor Who when he was young: “The Doctor introduces himself to someone who says, ‘Doctor? Are you some kind of scientist?’ And he says, ‘Sir, I am every kind of scientist’. And I was, like, yes! Yes! That is what I want to be: every kind of scientist!””

“October 18, 2009 : Global Warming in SuperFreakonomics: The Anatomy of a Smear : By Stephen J. Dubner : 1. Let the wild rumpus start. Yes, it’s an ancient cliché: a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. But it’s still accurate. The final chapter in our forthcoming book, SuperFreakonomics, is about global warming: the risks, uncertainties, misperceptions, and proposed solutions. It has already come in for steep criticism by, among others, a prominent environmental blogger and a well-known environmental advocacy group. Their criticism has radiated into the blogosphere, producing many further stories with headlines like “SuperFreakonomics Gets Climate Change Super Freaking Wrong.” They have given the impression that we are global-warming deniers of the worst sort, and that our analysis of the issue is ideological and unscientific. Most gravely, we stand accused of misrepresenting the views of one of the most respected climate scientists on the scene, whom we interviewed extensively. If everything they said was actually true, it would indeed be a damning indictment. But it’s not…”—and-save-the-planet.html

“Kill our cows – and save the planet : Tom Leonard meets two best-selling authors who made a fortune by standing statistics on their heads : By Tom Leonard : Published: 13 Oct 2009 : Kill our cows – and save the planet : Who would nowadays bother asking an economist so much as the time of day? The popular perception is that the profession and its much-lauded “dismal science” got an F when it came to warning us about the global financial meltdown. And yet who can begrudge an economist who tells us that suicide bombers should buy life insurance, that pimps are like estate agents, that walking drunk is more dangerous than driving drunk and that eating kangaroo could help solve global warming? All are contained and explained in Superfreakonomics, the sequel to the best-selling Freakonomics, a book which has sold almost four million copies since it came out in 2005. The authors of both books, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, opened the floodgates to a torrent of cleverclogs, pop-economics imitators. Of the “freak brothers”, Levitt, 42, is a wunderkind economist –- often hailed as one of the most talented of his generation – and professor at the University of Chicago. Dubner, 46, is an award-winning economics journalist from New York who started writing with Levitt after publishers became excited by a profile he had written of the young economist in the New York Times. As one of the most successful writing partnerships in publishing, they make an entirely complementary and logical team in the same way that Jack Spratt and his wife did at the dinner table. Levitt provides the economist’s methodology and number-crunching skills, Dubner writes it all up so as to make it interesting – and comprehensible – to the layman…”

“Dominic Lawson: Here’s another phoney war: the one on climate change : There’s no glory in spending $10m a year on giant nozzles that squirt sulphur dioxide : Tuesday, 13 October 2009 : The phrase “publishing sensation” is standard hyperbole from marketing men anxious to push book sales. Sometimes, however, a book comes along which justifies the term. One such is Freakonomics, which since its publication in 2005 has sold well over 3 million copies. This would be a remarkable figure for a popular fiction writer; but the author of this non-fiction work was a university economist called Steven Levitt, aided and abetted by the New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner. Essentially their book applied basic economic theories of utility-maximisation to social issues which hitherto had been discussed purely in political terms. The essay which caused the most sensation was Levitt’s analysis linking falling crime figures to the federal legalisation of abortion via the Roe v Wade constitutional amendment. Levitt claimed that these apparently unconnected statistics in fact represented a significant correlation: unwanted children tended to be neglected and thus turn to crime, so the great increase in abortions from the early 1970s was the main, but unheralded, reason for the drop in US crime rates in the 1990s…”

“Why Branson and SuperFreakonomics are wrong, in pictures 6 : Posted on 16 Oct 2009 : by David Roberts : This week, as reported by Andy Revkin, entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson said something heroically, world-historically stupid: “If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn’t be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.” Sir Richard was talking about removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He’s not alone. The authors of the upcoming book SuperFreakonomics also think that geoengineering is a cheap, easy way to avoid the work of fashioning a more sustainable society. (See Joe Romm for much, much more on the errors in that book.) I’ve been writing too many wordy posts lately, so instead, here are some pictures. These first two come from the preface of Gus Speth‘s book The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Pardon the somewhat crude scans…Lesson: the problems humanity faces are systemic and interrelated. The idea that sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere will save us is akin to the hope that a math equation can be solved by erasing one of the numbers…”

“October 17, 2009 : Superfreakonomics on climate, part 1 : OK, I’m working my way through the climate chapter — and the first five pages, by themselves, are enough to discredit the whole thing. Why? Because they grossly misrepresent other peoples’ research, in both climate science and economics. The chapter opens with the “global cooling” story — the claim that 30 years ago there was a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling, comparable to the current consensus that it’s warming. Um, no. Real Climate has the takedown. What you had in the 70s was a few scientists advancing the cooling hypothesis, and a few popular media stories hyping their suggestions. To the extent that there was a consensus, it was that there wasn’t much evidence for anything, and more research was needed. What you have today is a massive research program involving thousands of scientists and many peer-reviewed publications, with all major international bodies agreeing that man-made global warming is real. You can, if you insist, dismiss it all as a gigantic hoax or whatever — but it’s nothing like the isolated 70s speculations about cooling…”

“Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong : gavin @ 18 October 2009 : Many commentators have already pointed out dozens of misquotes, misrepresentations and mistakes in the ‘Global Cooling’ chapter of the new book SuperFreakonomics by Ste[ph|v]ens Levitt and Dubner (see Joe Romm (parts I, II, III, IV, Stoat, Deltoid, UCS and Paul Krugman for details. Michael Tobis has a good piece on the difference between adaptation and geo-engineering). Unfortunately, Amazon has now turned off the ’search inside’ function for this book, but you can read the relevant chapter for yourself here (via Brad DeLong). However, instead of simply listing errors already found by others, I’ll focus on why this chapter was possibly written in the first place. (For some background on geo-engineering, read our previous pieces: Climate Change methadone? and Geo-engineering in vogue, Also the Atlantic Monthly “Re-Engineering the Earth” article had a lot of quotes from our own Raypierre)…”

Anyone wanting to read the Chapter 5 can do so here :-

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