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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

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"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"


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http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_NWqd1Vf5Ixk/Sn4RCBivHjI/AAAAAAAAAj4/FPYu5cqWYFk/s320/superfreakonomics.jpgThis post looks at Nobelist Krugman’s first take-down of the single most stunning economic error in SuperFreakonomics.  I’ll also take on the authors disingenuous response to the critics (including me), “The Rumors of Our Global-Warming Denial Are Greatly Exaggerated.”

No, I don’t know any critics who called them global warming “deniers” — I don’t use the word in my critiques.  The authors are disingenuously trying to take the high ground by misrepresenting their opponents and creating strawmen, which is their modus operandi in the book.  The primary climatologist the book relies on, Ken Caldeira, said in an extended email interview with me “it is an inaccurate portrayal of me” and “misleading” in “many” places. Levitt and Dubner use the far-far-out James Lovelock as the primary scientific foil in their discussion in order to make their nonsensical views seem plausible (see “Lovelock still makes me look like Paula Abdul, warns climate war could kill nearly all of us, leaving survivors in the Stone Age“).

Still, it’s worth remembering, the book contains these two inane sentences (among many, many others as I’ve shown in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3):

  1. “Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception.”
  2. “In other words:  it’s illogical to believe in a carbon-induced warming apocalypse and believe that such an apocalypse can be averted simply by curtailing new carbon emissions.”

The authors aren’t deniers per se, but the book is staggeringly anti-scientific and illogical.

And the economics, what little of it there is in the chapter, is utterly wrong.  Krugman just savaged them this morning on their biggest howler.  The Superfreaks write:

Do the future benefits from cutting emissions outweigh the costs of doing so? Or are we better off waiting to cut emissions later “” or even, perhaps, polluting at will and just learning to live in a hotter world?

The economist Martin Weitzman analyzed the best available climate models and concluded that the future holds a 5 percent chance of a terrible-case scenario — a rise of more than 10 degrees Celsius.

Amazing.  In one sentence, which they never ran by Weitzman, they get his entire thesis ass backwards (and misquote him, too).  As Krugman explains:

Yikes. I read Weitzman’s paper, and have corresponded with him on the subject “” and it’s making exactly the opposite of the point they’re implying it makes. Weitzman’s argument is that uncertainty about the extent of global warming makes the case for drastic action stronger, not weaker. And here’s what he says about the timing of action:

The conventional economic advice of spending modestly on abatement now but gradually ramping up expenditures over time is an extreme lower bound on what is reasonable rather than a best estimate of what is reasonable.

Again, we’re not even getting into substance “” just the basic issue of representing correctly what other people said.

I correspond with Weitzman also.  While I don’t agree with him 100%, I am of fan of his work (see Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”).  And that’s how I know that Weitzman has NOT “analyzed the best available climate models and concluded that the future holds a 5 percent chance of a terrible-case scenario — a rise of more than 10 degrees Celsius.” If you read his published paper in Review of Economics and Statistics (February 2009), “On modeling and interpreting the economics of catastrophic climate change,” you’ll see he writes:

The upper 5% probability level averaged over all 22 climate-sensitivity studies cited in IPCC-AR4 (2007) is 7°C.

Also for Weitzman 10 C isn’t the “terrible-case scenario” — it’s “terra incognita,” a “worldwide catastrophe.”  In a new draft of his analysis, which he just sent me, he suggests two possible damage functions whereby a 10 C warming would lead to a loss of social welfare of 83% to 99%!!!  He writes “A temperature increase of 4C is likely to have some very serious consequences.”  In his published paper he writes:

As a recent Science commentary put it: “Once the world has warmed by 4°C, conditions will be so different from anything we can observe today (and still more different from the last ice age) that it is inherently hard to say where the warming will stop.”

When I sent the one sentence from Superfreakonomics to Weitzman — writing, “I thought 6C warming was the ‘terrible’ case you consider and that’s what had a 5% chance” — he wrote back:

You are right.  Is their book already out, or is there still a chance to clarify this?

Needless to say, had the Superfreaks run their statement by Weitzman — or had even the slightest clue what he was arguing — they never would have written what they did.  It is an amateurish mistake.

Let me end with some comments on Levitt’s recent blog post, “The Rumors of Our Global-Warming Denial Are Greatly Exaggerated.”  First, he whines:

SuperFreakonomics isn’t even on sale yet, and the attacks on our chapter about global warming are already underway.

A prominent environmental blogger has attacked us. A well-known environmental-advocacy group pressured NPR into reading a statement critical of the book at the end of an interview I had given on Scott Simon‘s Weekend Edition show. Even Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong got in on the action before they’d even read the book.

Laughable — and disingenuous.

The book isn’t even on sale yet — and Levitt is already misleading the public on NPR!  I’ll deal with that interview tomorrow.  But if Levitt can spread disinformation on the airwaves before his book is out, then he can hardly complain that people are attacking him.

Second, you’ll see how he characterizes me as an “environmental blogger” and “The Union of Concerned Scientists” as an environmental-advocacy group.  That’s because he’s trying to frame this debate as the scientists he talked to versus environmentalists (like Gore, their other whipping boy in the book).  In fact, the truth is that we have a whole bunch of scientists — including the primary climatologist he talked — versus two non-scientists who don’t know what they are talking about on climate science, climate solutions, or climate economics.

We are working on a thorough response to these critics, which we hope to post on the blog in the next day or two. The bottom line is that the foundation of these attacks is essentially fraudulent, as we’ll spell out in detail. In the meantime, let us just say the following….

The critics are implying that we dismiss any threats from global warming; but the entire point of our chapter is to discuss global-warming solutions, so obviously that’s not the case.The statements being circulated create the false impression that our analysis of the global-warming crisis is ideological and unscientific. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It their analysis that is “essentially fraudulent” as I and many others have shown.  Nobody is saying or “implying” they “dismiss any threats from global warming.”  That’s another strawman.

Their analysis is clearly unscientific, but again I don’t know anyone who has claimed it is “ideological,” except in the sense that they know how to make a lot of money and get a lot of media coverage by pushing a contrarian viewpoint.  Now if contrarianism wholly overwhelms one’s rationality to the point where a person is contrarian despite the facts but merely for the sake of being contrarian, then I suppose that is an ideology.

I’ll blog more on the Superfreaks tomorrow.  Yes, I’m blogging a great deal on this, but besides the obvious interest that my posts have generated — Part 1 is already easily the most widely read post I’ve written this year — I think are having an impact and, as Part 5 will make clear, these guys are about to launch a major media/disinformation blitz.

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20 Responses to 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

  1. caerbannog says:

    Actually, I prefer the term “tinfoil-hatter” to “denier”. The former doesn’t carry the historical baggage of “denier” and IMO better captures the utter silliness of the global-warming “skeptic” community.

    Anyone who claims (or implies) that all the science academies and professional scientific societies worldwide are engaged in some sort of “coverup” is orders of magnitude goofier than even someone who claims that the US government planted explosives in the WTC towers. The sheer size of any scientific global-warming “coverup” would make even the most extravagant 911 conspiracy look microscopic in comparison.

    The remaining global-warming skeptics really do remind me of an X-rated Disney cartoon — F***ing Goofy.

  2. Steve Bloom says:

    Dubner was happy enough to try to defend himself on the Freakonomics blog by citing that atrocious Paul Hudson article on the BBC site. Apparently Dubner was gullible enough to believe that Hudson’s “scientific” sources (Don Easterbrook and Piers Corbyn) would provide some cover to the Superfreaks.

  3. Look at the linked article:



    “Why climate change denial must be taken seriously”
    By Peter Gorrie, Science Reporter

    This explains why the denying world will win if the rest of us do not get it right.

    The Science Reporter carefully points out how important it is to bring the middle class into the debate on the right side.

    Those of us who believe there is a looming problem with CO2 have to contend with “deniers” as well as “wealthy elites” who take a callous attitude toward middle class values. Change has to come but it will not work out well if we are not careful.

    I bring up again the fact that plug-in cars, whether hybrids or all electric are a cruel green washing hoax. Cars running on electricity are cars running on coal until there is reserve capacity of something better to tap to run them. The IEA recently put out an exerpt of one of their expensive reports that purports to show that there is a great benefit in electric cars but at the same time it shows that the reserve generating capacity in 2030 will still be coal. (Go to http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/ and download the “exerpt.”)

    When the hoax shakes out it will be way too late to bring the public into the cause of combatting global warming. The hoax will poison the water for real solutions.

    [JR: No. What are the "real" solutions?]

  4. lizardo says:

    Again: many people have made the mistake of thinking that electric cars are worse because they are comparing coal and gasoline as if they were doing the same job. But an electric motor is so much more efficient at translating energy to motion than a liquid fuelled internal combustion engine (not to mention not using any when stopped) that plug in cars fuelled entirely by coal would still be better than continuing to run our vehicles on gasoline. Better in the sense of overall CO2 emissions AND other pollutants. That’s how much more efficient they are.

    This seems to be not a widely known fact, which is a shame as it is thinking people that I find raise this issue. And it’s always good to connect dots. However, it’s the case that while ethanol was a dead end and overpromoted too soon (thanks Cargill and King Corn lobby) electric vehicles really do offer a real benefit in terms of lifecycle emissions.

    Ideally we should be getting more sustainable power onto the grid, though the virtue of a plug-in is that it doesn’t require 24 hour grid power and could be charged at night by a PV system with battery backup or during an 8 day without it. Usually.

    Of course we would all prefer that coal plants be shut down period, and certainly wouldn’t advocate keeping them running merely to power plug ins for a few hours a day.

    An extremely smart automotive and aerospace engineer who gave a talk to us here pointed out that our transportation needs both innovations but they can proceed independently. I agree otherwise neither gets done.

    The not-just-tailpipe-emissions scam regarding low carbon “solutions” is nuclear power.

  5. Real solutions include efficiency measures and hybrid cars, though the hybrid cars have to be well designed like the Prius (As you know) and maybe the Ford Fusion hybrid is going to be a good product.

    These things are real but will not get the job done. That will require some more significant changes such as the Aptera (see http://www.aptera.com) and, of course, the real “bizarre” kind of things that I try to promote. I try to develop really new systems and then get them adopted but with insistence that large costs are not imposed.

    Moving to electric vehicles that use grid power will not work out well unless we find some practical way to deal with the coal facts of life. Of course, you are more hopeful for the Waxman-Markey kind of methods than I am. New input suggesting how difficult that could turn out to be comes from the latest issue of the Economist on page 20, “Bad Policy Will Boil the Planet.”

  6. Lizardo,

    To keep things fair, at least a VP of Cargill made a statement a few years ago that “Using feed grains to make motor fuel is a bad idea,” or something to that effect (if I remember correctly). That does not necessarily mean Cargill did not go along with it all, but at least there was some notable resistance there.

    ADM was a very strong promoter of the ethanol idea at that time.

  7. Crazy Bill says:

    I don’t know the comparitive numbers, but there seems to be a clear benefit in migrating to plugin electric cars – that is the flexibility in power source. The present car fleet and ancillary infrastructure is designed only for liquid fuels, which forces the use of oil or expensive (in terms of CO2) synthetics. However, once you have a large fleet of electric cars powered from the grid, the choice of energy source becomes wide open to all non-FF sources. With an appropriate carbon levy, the migration to CO2 free power source is relatively easy.

  8. Dana N. says:

    I’m enjoying this multi-part series on Superfreakonomics. I thought their first book was great, so I’m very disappointed that they did such a poor job on the sequel. No doubt it will draw tons of attention, so it’s worth the time to debunk the misinformation in the book. Keep it up Joe!

  9. Crazy Bill,

    Everything you say is correct if and only if you believe that the migration you describe is a realistic possibility.

    I support my concern that it is not by looking at the IEA exerpt linked to in the #3 post above where their optimistic outlook still includes a substantial amount of coal fired power in the system in the year 2030.

    I can illustrate my point in the IEA charts where it can be seen that if there were no plug-ins, only hybrids, the coal fired power could be eliminated, under their scenario that is. Adding back in the CO2 from the gasoline powering of the hybrids would be appropriate, whereby about 70% (very rough estimate) of the CO2 cut by that elimination of coal fired power would be put back into the balance on the gasoline side. By this I conclude that the plug-in step gets us less than nowhere as far as CO2 goes. Of course, it helps shift from oil to coal as the fuel of transportation, and many like that idea.

  10. Anon says:

    Joe, you did see Dubner’s characterization of your critique?

    “…Romm’s extremely misleading 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. …”
    - from

    OK, this is a longshot, but – is there any chance that the Freakonomicists and TBI are using the same crisis communications person/team/consultant? their responses to criticism have the same bizarre (overheated, personal and reality-independent) tone.

    It seems bizarre to me, anyway.
    (but then I am not and have never been an alpha male in my prime facing challenges to my rightful spot atop the dominance hierarchy, so I may be way off base.)
    (p.s. “rightful”, from the perspective of said alpha male)

  11. Leland Palmer says:

    “In other words: it’s illogical to believe in a carbon-induced warming apocalypse and believe that such an apocalypse can be averted simply by curtailing new carbon emissions.”

    No, it’s pretty much mandatory to believe in a carbon induced warming apocalypse, these days, and curtailing carbon emissions is one of the things, but only one of the things, that we have to do to avoid that catastrophe.

    How they can use James Lovelock to produce such a statement is beyond me.

    I think Lovelock is very strong on diagnosis, but a little weak on cure. But so far as diagnosing the problem, he’s right on, I think. And he has the magnitude of the problem right, too, IMO. If we don’t start fighting a war against the runaway positive feedbacks that are developing, we will indeed see a world that resembles Lovelock’s scenario, IMO. He simply believes that the climate is a nonlinear system, and will respond to the developing positive feedbacks in a nonlinear manner. What’s wrong with that?

    Lovelock’s climate destabilization scenario is a logical projection of the developing positive feedbacks and the fact that reducing CO2 emissions, by itself, is an insufficient solution to the runaway positive feedbacks.

    In the absence of the widespread development and implementation of carbon negative energy schemes and management practices, Lovelock is right, IMO.


    What we need to do, both to shatter Lovelock’s pessimism and run electric cars in the above discussion, is transform the coal fired power plants to carbon negative bio-energy with carbon capture and storage power plants.

    Worldwide, coal fired power plants emit something like 4.5 billion tons of carbon, equal to about 16 billion tons of CO2. Worldwide emission of CO2 is something like 28 billion tons of CO2. So, turning all coal fired power plants worldwide into carbon negative power plants would keep 16 billion tons of CO2 out of the air. But because Bio-energy plus CCS is carbon negative, it would also transfer 16 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, and sequester it underground, simultaneously (or at least as soon as the biomass grows back). So, suddenly we are carbon negative with regard to CO2 emissions by about 4 billion tons of CO2 per year, worldwide, just from converting existing coal fired power plants to Bio-energy plus carbon capture and storage power plants.

    Add in the synergistic effects of wildfire reduction, by clearing the forests of combustible undergrowth, reduction of methane emissions by carbonizing biomass and trash that would otherwise decay and produce methane, and if some of the electricity was used to run electric cars, and the carbon balance gets even more negative. Done soon enough, we could start to put enough carbon back underground to avoid the positive climate feedbacks we are seeing, or at least take the edge off the runaway feedbacks, if we are lucky.

    If it weren’t for carbon negative energy, Lovelock would be right, IMO, and catastrophe would be almost inevitable. You can’t drain a bathtub just by slowing down how fast you run water into it. And we can’t reduce atmospheric CO2, at least very easily, by just slowing the rate of growth of CO2 emissions.

    About Superfreakonomics, they’re just super freaking distracting, from what Joe has posted.

    Their “solar cells are bad because they’re dark colored” argument is simultaneously apparently wrong, exaggerated, and easily fixed.

    Heat balance of solar cells depends on both absorption of light and emission of infrared radiant energy. So, depending on the emissivity of the solar panels at night, they might radiate as much infrared energy to the cold upper atmosphere at night as they absorb during the day, especially in desert areas, where radiative cooling works the best because low water vapor concentrations increase the effectiveness of radiative cooling. Glass (the cover of most solar cell modules) is a great infrared emitter, I seem to recall.

    The visible albedo problem is also easily fixed, by just scattering some white gravel around, or painting the roofs that the solar cells sit on white.

    If the rest of their arguments are like these, this book is just trash, IMO.

  12. Anna Haynes says:

    (p.s. “Anon” above is I, accidentally.)

  13. paulm says:

    Did I miss your comment on this Joe….

    Solving the climate dilemma: The budget approach

    “I myself was terrified when I saw these numbers,” Schellnhuber told me. He urges governments to agree in Copenhagen to launch “a Green Apollo Project.” Like John Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon in ten years, a global Green Apollo Project would aim to put leading economies on a trajectory of zero carbon emissions within 10 years. Combined with carbon trading with low-emissions countries, Schellnhuber says, such a “wartime mobilization” might still save us from the worst impacts of climate change.

  14. Per Anna Haynes, #10 above”

    but then I am not and have never been an alpha male in my prime facing challenges to my rightful spot atop the dominance hierarchy, so I may be way off base.

    For some reason I’ve got a wicked jones for a banana right now …

  15. Cugel says:

    I read their first book and found it full of holes, statements of the obvious (“things are not as simple as they might at first seem”) apparently justifying wild speculations, and answering of questions that nobody would sensibly ask if they had any grasp of reality. They rose without trace only to sink as media attention moved on (a matter of months, when not weeks). Now they come up for second time, waving but still drowning.

    ‘Super’ Freakonomics matters only because it represents so well the current sad condition of climate denialism. When they come up for the third time (they’re still young enough) they’ll hardly make a ripple on the surface.

    The fact that they respond to Joe Romm’s criticisms by employing exactly the rhetorical tactics which he criticises says it all. Don’t let it go, Joe.

  16. David Stern says:

    Yes, the discussions of economics in the chapter were as slipshod as the natural science…

  17. Marion Delgado says:

    I’m a critic, I have called them deniers, and I would add, sneaky, two-faced, fork-tongued deniers at that. To one audience, in one venue, they’ll pretend to be reasonable, in another venue they’ll pull out all the shopworn denialist propaganda they can recall. It’s not the job of the critics to pretend they’re consistent, since they are not. It’s their job to account for their con-manlike behavior, frankly.

    Moreover, Levitt and Dubner are clearly playing Good Cop/Bad Cop. Either Levitt dissociates himself from his usually-but-not-always denier writing partner, or he has no grounds for objecting when he’s labeled a denier as well. It’s not really a straw man.

    That Levitt has made repeated concessions about global warming UNDER PRESSURE means absolutely nothing. He should be contradicting Dubner’s many denialist rants, and should have removed Global Cooling from the title of his book. Especially not doing the latter MAKES him a denier, period.

    As a final snit, I have to add it’s very precious for market fundamentalists to pretend climate science is a religion.

  18. Ron Broberg says:

    A frequent game I play with deniers is to ‘read the source.’

    Some denier copies some snippet they first read on WUWT into some other forum. I go back and read the original source (science paper or news release from some science institution) and show the denier that they have left out the full context that undermines their denialist point.

    Its a shame that a prominent author didn’t bother to do the same and go back and contact Weitzman. Bravo to Joe for doing so.

    Sloppy, Sloppy, Sloppy work by Freaky guy.

  19. Anna Haynes says:

    Today’s Dubner/Levitt “book-coming-out” Parade Magazine article is remarkably similar to Michael Crichton’s “book-coming-out” Parade Magazine article.

    Dubner&Levitt: What Should You Worry About?
    “Identity theft? Killer sharks? Disease? We’re bad at assessing risk—we panic about the wrong things.”

    Crichton: Let’s Stop Scaring Ourselves
    “From world overpopulation to Y2K to killer bees, many of the dangers we’re warned about never materialize. Isn’t it time for some healthy skepticism?”

  20. Ric Merritt says:

    Anna Hayes has the diagnosis about right.

    A point not mentioned in what I’ve read (falls short of everything) about Superfreakonomics is that the authors, however clever they are about spotting the reasoning levers that others miss, have fallen into the most obvious trap around: the first book was judged insightful and sold well, so hey, another book will be even better, right? Wrong. Sequels are usually downhill, Huck Finn notwithstanding.