"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"
This 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“).
- “Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception.”
- “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.