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.”

Caldeira: "Carbon dioxide is the right villain"In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner write of Ken Caldeira (page 184), “Yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.”  What he really believes, as he wrote me last weekend, is:

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.

Caldeira, the primary climatologist Superfreakonomics relies on, has himself updated his website (click here) to debunk the book’s characterization of his views.  He puts under his picture the following quote:

“Carbon dioxide is the right villain,”  says Caldeira, “insofar as inanimate objects can be villains.”

I noted in Part 1 that Ken Caldeira, wrote me last weekend:

If you talk all day, and somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context because they want to make a provocative and controversial chapter, there is not much you can do. The standard way to protect against this, of course, is to give short interviews.

Another thing they said that was misleading (out of many) is that….

Oh, you’ll have to tune in later for that mistake.  For now, I just wanted to make clear that Caldeira does think these guys misrepresented him and made many misleading statements.  He also wrote me:

So, yes, my representation in the Superfreakonomics book is damaging to me because it is an inaccurate portrayal of me. The problem is the inaccurate portrayal, not my actions or statements.

The well-known Berkeley economics professor and blogger J. Bradford DeLong has begun his multiple takedowns of SuperFreakonomics. In one headline, he echoes a query from TNR‘s Brad Plummer, Does “Superfreakonomics” Need A Do-Over?

DeLong also prints an email from Dubner, which I excerpt:

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…  He makes it sound as if we somehow twisted and abused Caldeira’s research; nothing could be further from the truth…. 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.

So if I adopted the Superfreak’s approach to quoting people, then I would say, as I did in the headline of the earlier version of this post, Dubner says “Romm has done a great job” with his critiques.  But you’re not allowed to do that in a blog or a book, are you?

For the record, I don’t support such journalism — I will, however, mock people who regularly and egregiously do.  Indeed, on complex matters I try to run quotes by the person I’m interviewing, which, frankly about half the journalists who quote me also do.  I asked Caldeira if I could quote his emails and he wrote me, “I assume when I send you things, you can quote them unless I specifically say otherwise.”

UPDATE:  Caldeira wrote me what he wrote me.  I did ask him for a quote that the Superfreaks had misrepresented his views — because I knew very well that they had based on my previous emails with him on geo-engineering.  It is exceedingly common in regular journalism to ask people for a quote that makes a very specific point — I’ve been asked many times by reporters to do similar things.

Note, the “villain” quote isn’t only a piece of the biggest misrepresentation the Superfreaks make of Caldeira’s work.  The bigger point is that Caldeira simply doesn’t believe in the geoengineering-only strategy they are pushing.  Over the course of our emails, it became clear he didn’t get the final version from the Superfreaks but from Nathan Myhrvold.  I wrote Caldeira:

Are you telling me that the authors did not send you galleys for comment but you got them third hand from Nathan?

He wrote me back:

That is correct, not the entire chapter, but a section was forwarded to me by Nathan. I searched through it quickly, looking for the parts that discussed me, and did not give the whole process very much attention at the time.  In general I feel no need to read, fact check, or make detailed comments on documents that arrive in my in-box. I have lots of other things to do, like trying to get my science out the door.

He told me he objected to this line, “And yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight” writing a comment directly at the end of their text on this line:

My views differ significantly from Lowell’s and Nathan’s. I do think we are being incredibly foolish emitting CO2 and that avoiding all of this environmental risk is a good way to invest a few percent of our GDP. My pessimism stems from the apparent difficulties of solving the “prisoner’s dilemma”, “tragedy of the commons”, type aspects of this problem.

He didn’t think that got back to Dubner, but it did.  Dubner now claims Caldeira was just making a “qualification.”  He was clearly disputing the line.  Dubner just really, really wanted to leave it in (it’s also in the table of contents) so they did:

SuperFreaks: "Carbon dioxide is not the real villain"

The bigger point is that Caldeira does NOT believe in the geo-engineering-only strategy the Superfreaks are pushing, as I discussed in Part 1.  This is what he really believes:

If we keep emitting greenhouse gases with the intent of offsetting the global warming with ever increasing loadings of particles in the stratosphere, we will be heading to a planet with extremely high greenhouse gases and a thick stratospheric haze that we would need to main more-or-less indefinitely. This seems to be a dystopic world out of a science fiction story. First, we can assume the oceans have been heavily acidified with shellfish and corals largely a thing of the past. We can assume that ecosystems will be greatly affected by the high CO2 / low sunlight conditions “” similar to what Earth experienced hundreds of millions years ago. The sunlight would likely be very diffuse “” maybe good for portrait photography, but with unknown consequences for ecosystems.

This episode is a cautionary tale for all scientists (including me).  By the way, I think the standard of practice should be much higher for a book because the production process is much slower.  I can understand why a blogger or even a print reporter might not always feel he or she has time to check with the original source.  You’re writing at such a fast clip.  But you have weeks if not months to run an entire book chapter by an original source.

Finally, to get to the rest of my headline, you’ll note that Dubner whines that people are criticizing his book without having read it.  Well, let’s see, his publisher made me take down the PDF of the chapter — which is certainly fully within its rights.  And then, yes, the book was searchable on Amazon for a number of days.  I checked many of the pages in the chapter I was sent against the online version and twice told readers they could search the book to check my claim.  So this statement by Dubner is false:

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)

Yes, “As far as I know” is a great Nixonian hedge, like “to the best of my knowledge.”  Thing is, Dubner could have checked this.

If I had ever imagined that Amazon would take down the book’s searchability, I would have done a screen capture.  If any readers searched it last week, let me know.

DeLong replied to Dubner:

Brad DeLong to Stephen

Re: “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…”

As I said, I can’t read your chapter–by your publisher’s choice.

That’s very bad for you: Romm’s posting your chapter and a link to it is a way for him to establish credibility–“see for yourself”; your publisher’s pulling it down is a way to diminish yours.

Now that DeLong can read parts of it, he ain’t thrilled.

I hope some other journalists interview Caldeira, so he can directly set the record straight, but you wouldn’t blame him if he were a bit gun shy with reporters right now, would you?  I’ll publish more of my so far exclusive interview with him in a day or two.

More on this from Wonk Room.

[Note:  This is a revised earlier version of this post based on the “breaking” news from Caldeira.]

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20 Responses to 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.”

  1. Yoram Bauman says:

    I’m an environmental economist who’s read the chapter (or at least the PDF from and I think it’s misleading and incredibly disappointing. Details on my blog at

  2. Leif says:

    It is good to see that Stephen Dubner has come around to thinking that “ROMM HAS DONE A GREAT JOB.” Perhaps there is hope for him yet.

  3. mike roddy says:

    I don’t think Dubner and Levitt have any idea how much this book’s publication is going to destroy their credibility. They may get a nice publicity bump early on, but people who buy books are a little different from the ones who listen to Rush. They are going to read that chapter and say “Huh?”.

    The authors will then find themselves in a nightmare world of getting invited to things like the Heartland Conference, and receiving dinner invitations from people like Dan Blankenship and Steve McIntyre. If they actually accept these invitations, the hell that they will experience will make them wish that they’d stopped the presses. And if they run into actual thinkers in New York restaurants, they will be greeted with frozen smiles and quick “love to talk, but gotta go” remarks.

    Thanks to you, Joe, they have certainly received fair warning.

  4. Yoram Bauman says:

    PS. I had a respectful email exchange with Steven Levitt this morning. It’s here:

  5. ZS says:

    Check out the most recent rebuttal by Dubner and Levitt:

    “The real purpose of the chapter is figuring out how to cool the Earth if indeed it becomes catastrophically warmer. (That is the “global cooling” in our subtitle. If someone interprets our brief mention of the global-cooling scare of the 1970’s as an assertion of “a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling,” that feels like a willful misreading.)”


    Please hold for a moment as I go to UrbanDictionary and copy and paste that paragraph as a proposed definition of “disingenuous”.

    Can they be serious?

    Someone took the words “global cooling” and interpreted that as the almost ubiquitous nonsense denier argument that’s constantly trotted out by discredited bloggers and Fox News? Baffling!

    Get real.

  6. Yoram Bauman says:

    PPS. In this 2008 Freakonomics quorum, two scientists are quoted… and both of them turn out to be skeptics:

    What are the odds that both scientists would be skeptics? As I wrote Levitt, the odds are “probably a billion to one, so my unavoidable conclusion is that you are deliberately trying to cast doubt on the scientific consensus”:

    The general pattern from their writings is one that is inappropriately misleading about the scientific consensus about climate change. (In case anybody’s forgotten, that consensus—as expressed in IPCC 2007—is: “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”)

  7. jdw says:

    Like Joe says, it takes a village to deal with all the misleading stuff even in the only part of Dubner and Levitt’s SuperFreakonomics we are able to get at so far. Joe and others have done yeoman work, but here’s another point that I haven’t yet seen made: it’s not just that they use a silly analogy, they don’t even understand the implications of that analogy.

    For those who’ve not yet had a read of the chapter itself, they tell the story of Semmelweis’s difficulty in convincing doctors that they should wash their hands. Semmelweis figured out in 1847 that if doctors washed their hands, they could save a lot of lives. And even recent studies have shown that doctors still do not wash their hands nearly so often as they should, even though they know that is very bad. Then, they tell the story about how Cedars-Sinai responded to the 1999 study showing that doctors just didn’t change their behavior. They had a hard time. They tried all sorts of things. In the end though, they managed to do it by culturing the hands of many of the top doctors in the hospital, showing them how filthy their hands really were, and putting the cultures up as screensavers in the whole hospital to remind people all the time. It’s a nice story. It was hard, but in the end, they were able to get handwashing rates up to nearly 100 percent.

    What lesson do Levitt and Dubner draw from that analogy? They argue that the reason it was so hard to get doctors to wash their hands, even though they knew it was important, was because of externalities. The docs were getting other people sick, but their own lives weren’t in danger so it didn’t seem that important. That seems plausible. But then things get weird. What lesson do they draw from the analogy? They argue that it supports their argument that we need to think really seriously about geo-engineering, because we’ll never be able to get people to change their behavior because they just don’t pay a high enough price for their own bad behavior.

    It’s here that I start to ask myself whether they read the words they write, or like memento-on-speed, they forget even their immediatly previous paragraphs. Are they trying to be contrarian even to themselves? I mean, they are talking about something where the science is clear, it’s important, and at the end, Cedars-Sinai does manage to get people to do what they are supposed to do without changing their incentives. And the lesson they draw for the climate change debate is that we need geo-engineering?!?!?! Where does that come from? I look at the exact same analogy, and say we’ve got something where the science seems pretty clear — CO2 causes climate change — so we need to work really hard to get people to change their behavior, and, while difficult, it is possible to do it just by really making people understand that it is really really bad.

    So what should we be doing, besides improving our own behavior? Well, for starters, when people suggest that we’ll just figure a simple technological fix that will surely work forever, we make it very clear that they are treading in dangerous territory — what Joe is doing — and we do not lot them get away with any untruths. We can certainly explore geo-engineering, but we cannot make the case for it by pooh-poohing the very possibility of bevahioral change. People are social animals. And it’s just not true that they never solve collective action problems. Did these two never hear of Elinor Ostrom? I think she might have recently gotten some sort of prize.

    We can even turn back to their own analogy. Why should we care if doctors wash their hands? We’ve invented penicillin. And that’ll surely work forever, right? We’ll never have to worry about antibiotic resistant bacteria will we?

  8. ZS says:

    So what should we be doing, besides improving our own behavior?

    Dubner, in his rebuttal, takes us down the path of a rational solution: “We discuss how it’s a very hard problem to solve since pollution is an externality – that is, the people who generate pollution generally don’t pay the cost of their actions and therefore don’t have strong incentives to pollute less.” But then, rather than continuing on with the obvious conclusion – the use of carbon should be accompanied by a price that approximates its harm to the the well being of the people and biodiversity of today and the forseeable future – he moves on to 1) geoengineering/AKA Terminator dystopia and 2) the idea that because something is difficult it shouldn’t be attempted.

    What a cowardly, and ultimately dangerous perspective.

    How did we go from “We will do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are difficult.” to entertaining thoughts of injecting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere because of an obsession with maintaining the status quo?

  9. Lore says:

    Maybe the title should be changed to “UnbelievableFreakonomics”.

  10. Dear Mr. Meyers, thanks for sharing with all of us how pathetically ineducable you are. Clearly we’ve never seen such examples of single-minded stupidity before. It is so refreshingly new to encounter someone who is so willfully ignorant that not only does he not know WHAT the difference is between climate and weather, but he is so resolutely incapable of even momentarily immitating intelligence that he does not even know THAT there is a difference between climate and weather. Your originality is only exceeded by your grasp of simple phrases and ideas, such as those that distinguish between “global” (as in GLOBAL warming) and “your backyard.”

  11. pete best says:

    The scientists over at realclimate have just unleashed thier take on the geoengineering side of freakonomics and guess what? The dont like it much – lol – so its a silly idea to geoengineer our way out of AGW when time is still on our side (or it it if we take the latest work on that period of time 15 million years ago) to get some new technology deployed and stop eating all that beef etc.

    Bring on the wind, the nuclear, the CSP and the CCS if that it what it takes to stop us from burning alove and then drowning after.

  12. Richard Brenne says:

    Joe, Lou and others:

    On page 52 of “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” James Lovelock writes: “The Earth’s greenhouse in now well above 400 ppm (carbon dioxide is near 390 ppm but methane, nitrous oxide and the CFCs lift the total effect to nearer that of 430 ppm carbon dioxide).”

    What do you think of pointing this out to the public? Does it confuse the issue? Is it something that would be useful for scientists to discuss amongst themselves?

    Because CO2 ppm fluctuates from a high of 390 ppm in May down to 387 ppm in July, what is the figure that you feel most comfortable using? The high point, as McKibben does? Or the low, or the annual midpoint?

    To me it would be good for all scientists and those communicating science to agree about one annual standard so we can discuss it more easily from year to year without confusing the public. What do you think?

  13. dhogaza says:

    Levitt claims:

    On the Caldeira references, he worked closely with us and read the chapter twice giving detailed comments before it went to print, so I don’t even know what to say about that.

    Joe, since you’re communicating with Calderra, you might want to ask him about that. Of course, the fact that they allowed him to comment doesn’t mean they accepted any of his comments …

    [JR: I have printed Caldeira’s comment on the “villain” quote — he disputed the quote, but they kept it. But the Superfreaks still don’t understand that this isn’t mostly about that quote, it is mostly about their overall characterization of him as a believer in the geo-engineering-only approach.]

  14. dhogaza says:

    Oh, sorry, I see you did already, never mind …

  15. P O'Neill says:

    The long unlinked Sunday Times chapter has finally appeareed

  16. Anna Haynes says:

    Thanks P O’Neill.

    As for Parade, compare Dubner/Levitt’s SuperFreak article with Crichton’s StateOfFear article –
    ( aka )

  17. Ron Broberg says:

    Oh look. Another scientist quoted out of context.

    Don’t the publishers employ fact checkers?
    This is getting to be embarrasing.

    Two sources for Chapter 5:

    And …

  18. Paul Klemencic says:

    Thanks Joe Romm… I have wasted a bunch of time this last week reading all this SuperF nonsense, and I have concluded that Levitt and Dubner are incapable of understanding any reasonable analysis of either the causes and impact of AGW, or the effectiveness of potential solutions.

    I read Yoram’s email exchange with Levitt at the link he posted above.
    The email exchange is really depressing. Especially depressing is how Levitt simply can’t understand why the natural cycle of CO2 isn’t as important as the fact that CO2 from fossil fuels has increased the CO2 in the atmosphere to a level 150% of where it stood when the natural cycle was in balance.

    I have spent a significant amount of time going through this information on SuperF, and my premise was that the authors did this either intentionally, or had bad luck in selecting their sources.

    Now I see I was wrong. There really is no point talking to Levitt or Dubner; they don’t even understand the basics of global warming. They are unable to recognize the mistakes they have made in the book. And it isn’t clear they are at all interested or capable of learning where they went wrong.

    If the information they wrote was misleading and leads the reader to reach the wrong conclusion, or if the information they wrote was insignificant, and focuses on unimportant data, they respond with a shrug and ask “But is the information true?” They will never acknowledge the information as written, takes the reader to a clearly wrong conclusion.

    If another piece of information in the book is just completely wrong, then Levitt and Dubner say “But we got this directly from this expert!” and duck responsibility. So the information from Myhrvold which is incorrect, stands uncorrected because they can explain where they got the info. They apparently never checked with a climate scientist or solar power expert who actually knows something about the energy balances to see if Myhrvold’s analysis of solar energy making global warming worse stood up to scrutiny.

    So we now know they are ignorant of the basics of AGW theory, can’t recognize legitimate criticism of the science and economic analysis in their book, and aren’t apparently willing to learn from their mistakes. What more can I say… “Houston, we have a problem.”

    It is interesting that Myhrvold was able to feed much of this nonsense to Levitt and Dubner, and they swallowed it without ever questioning whether Myhrvold had an economic incentive to lie and misrepresent the truth. I thought Levitt was an expert regarding incentives based economic decisions.

    Couple all of this with the personal attacks on Al Gore, and the conflation of people concerned about AGW with religious zealots, and I reach the conclusion that Levitt and Dubner are probably lost causes as either effective scientists, or economists, or even journalist writers covering AGW… Calling the justifiable criticism of their work a “Smear” seems to be the last nail in the coffin.

  19. Dano says:

    Sans, “your” mendacicizing isn’t working here or at Deltoid either. Maybe the person behind your nom d’ e- can try a different tactic to try and save face, eh?