Is Superfreakonomics author Levitt again denying the ‘unequivocal’ scientific evidence for global warming? New Yorker’s Kolbert calls book a form of “horseshit.”

Is calling global warming a religion the same thing as denying global warming science?

While the authors of Superfreakonomics, which is riddled with basic scientific errors, have started to issue some retractions, they continue to embrace self-contradictory denial of the basic science.

In mid-October, economist Steven Levitt wrote a blog post titled, “The Rumors of Our Global-Warming Denial Are Greatly Exaggerated,” which asserted:

Like those who are criticizing us, we believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon and that global warming is an important issue to solve.  Where we differ from the critics is in our view of the most effective solutions to this problem.

Then in another red-herring-filled post from last month, “The SuperFreakonomics Global-Warming Fact Quiz,” Levitt asserted that “we believe” it is “TRUE” that “The Earth has gotten substantially warmer over the past 100 years.”  And he writes of that statement — that “fact” — (and 5 others), “It is our impression that none of the six scientific statements above is at all controversial among climate scientists.”

Duh.  In fact, the most recent survey of the scientific literature signed off on by every major government in the world, including the Bush Administration, concluded “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”

Unfortunately for the Superfreaks, their book is once again searchable on Amazon, so everyone can confirm it contains the following sentence — the very first one I criticize them for in my original debunking when I broke the story of their error-riddled book:

Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception.

That is a staggeringly anti-scientific statement.  It should be retracted.  It should certainly not be repeated, as Levitt is now doing on his blog!

Note that they didn’t say something like “belief in climate solutions” is a religion.”  And they didn’t even say, “the theory of human-caused global warming is a religion” — which, in any case, they presumably don’t believe given that they say they believe rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon.

No, to Levitt and Dubner, “global warming” itself is a religion.  Except, of course, it isn’t.  Again, actual observations show that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”

The only reason I am bringing this up again is that Levitt has doubled down on this piece of anti-scientific nonsense.  As a eagle-eyed reader pointed out, Levitt blogged last week:

Is Climate-Change Belief a Religion?

By Steven D. Levitt

Actually, yes, at least if you live in the United Kingdom.

So what is it, Levitt?

You can’t simultaneously claim you understand that warming of the climate system is an uncontroversial statement of scientific fact — and then keep repeating the claim that global warming and belief in climate change is a religion.

As University of Chicago Geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert has charged, Levitt is guilty of “academic malpractice in your book.”

And for the record, climate change belief is not a religion even in the UK.  It remains a scientific understanding there and everywhere else.

The particular case and the ruling are convoluted — no doubt in part because the judge was the same one who issued that confused ruling on Al Gore’s movie (see here).  I would welcome any experts on British law posting here — and would certainly recommend reading the Guardian piece and an excellent dissection on Salon by Andrew Leonard.  As the Guardian notes:

In today’s ruling, Mr Justice Michael Burton decided that: “A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations.”

… The written ruling, which looked at whether philosophy could be underpinned by a scientific belief, quoted from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and ultimately concluded that a belief in climate change, while a political view about science, can also be a philosophical one.

At least in Britain, science can apparently drive moral imperatives that are protected by the law.  As the winner of the lawsuit put it:

I’m delighted by the judgment, not only for myself but also for other people who may feel they are discriminated against for their belief in man-made climate change. This is a huge issue and the moral and ethical values that I have in relation to the imperative to do something about it, but crucially underpinned by the overwhelming scientific consensus, mean that to have secured protection in this way is, I think, a landmark decision … It’s a philosophical belief based on my moral and ethical values underpinned by scientific evidence and that’s the distinction [with it being a religious belief] I think. The moral and ethical values are similar to those that are promoted and adopted by many of the world’s religions. But one of the key differences I think is that mine is not a faith-based or spiritual-based belief: it is grounded in the overwhelming scientific evidence and it’s the combination of that scientific evidence with the moral and ethical imperative to do something about it that is distinct from a religion.

Levitt, of course, is beyond such nuanced understanding.

He made an anti-scientific statement in the book, and notwithstanding certain half-hearted walk backs, he clearly stands by the statement.

Is calling global warming a religion the same thing as denying global warming science?  You be the judge.

UPDATE:  Noting that the Superfreaks discuss New York’s turn-of-the-century horse manure problem, what she calls, “the Parable of Horseshit,” the New Yorker‘s eloquent climate reporter ends her joint review of their book and Al Gore’s “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis”:

To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.


20 Responses to Is Superfreakonomics author Levitt again denying the ‘unequivocal’ scientific evidence for global warming? New Yorker’s Kolbert calls book a form of “horseshit.”

  1. WAG says:

    Another Calvin & Hobbes cartoon on Levitt & Dubner’s arrogant faith in our ability to engineer Nature to our liking:

  2. ken levenson says:

    To restate my comparison of this battle (from earlier post today), to the battle to recognize germs and viruses as the cause of disease and death – over a century ago.

    Those that act in the service (directly or indirectly) of marginalizing the devastating consequences of AGW are the equivalent of those Doctors who refused to wash their hands because they just couldn’t “believe” in the brutal scientific reality.

    Like the deniers of today, they turned science and belief on their head in ironic and devastating acts of anti-science – in the service of their insecurities.

    Once the reality of germs and viruses became accepted, and we acted accordingly, our life expectancy jumped dramatically.

    Can we do the same for our climate?

    Those that hedge on AGW have no more to offer than a doctor relying on leeches – that is, tremendous damage.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    This whole business of calling global warming a religion, or, more commonly, a “cult”, is just a standard denier talking point. The accusation is on the same level as a Rush Limbaugh comment.

    Levitt’s repeating it shows the kind of man he really is, in spite of his panicked attempts to backtrack from the many absurd denier statements in his book. He just can’t help himself, especially after test audiences raved over the whole global “cooling” and contrarian approach before the book came out. This test was far more important to the authors than an actual scientific fact check.

    The bottom line result has been another Lomborg piece of nonsense, and I’m glad you’re on it, Joe.

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    Joe –

    Since Levitt and Dubner have told me what my religion is, can I return the favor?

    Their religion is burn, baby, burn. Their religion is consumerism, it is consumptionism, it is cornucopianism. Their highest priests are the CEOs of fossil fuel companies. Do they celebrate every scrap of trash, every smudge of pollution?

  5. Alan D. McIntire says:

    You claim belief in AGW is not a religion. What do you think of this case?


    [JR: Well, definitely have the record for the most inane comment. Try reading this post before commenting on it!]

  6. Thom says:

    So again. The whole freaking world–Paul Krugman, The Economist, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, RealClimate, The New Republic, etc….etc…etc…–comes out and says this book is nonsense. Now, even The New Yorker points out the errors. And still, no peep out of Roger Pielke Jr., Tom Yulsma, or Keith Kloor. What gives?

  7. Davo says:

    I am wondering if you can call the statement ‘anti-scientific’, just because I am suspecting it may not yield to linguistic definition of the phrase. A personal opinion is just that, an opinion. You can disagree with it (and in this case rightly so…jesus, global warming is not a *religion*), but you cannot call “I think chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream” ‘anti-scientific’.

    [JR: It was not a statement of personal opinion, like one’s favorite flavor! Obviously if you said, “I think 2 + 2 = 5” that would be an erroneous statement. If you then said, “Belief that 2 + 2 = 5 is a religion,” would I think qualify as anti-scientific or perhaps anti-mathematic.

    If you said “I think the climate has not warmed in recent decades,” that would simply be a mistake. Doubly so if you elsewhere claimed that it was not a subject of scientific dispute. But to claim that belief that the climate has warned is a religion is, again, anti-scientific.]

  8. WAG says:

    So what I’m wondering is, if a climatology professor were fired from a university for DISbelief in climate change, would that constitute a protected religious belief?

    Or if an astronomy professor were fired for belief in a geocentric universe, would that constitute religious discrimination?

    At what point does academic freedom cease covering the right to regurgitate stuff that just isn’t true?

    (obviously the decision of the British court applied to the moral belief that climate change is an important issue, not to the scientific certainty of its existence, but interesting questions nonetheless.)

  9. Davo says:

    I think the first part of the statement “climate change is a religion” is more incorrect than anti-scientific while the second part “every religion has its heretics” is true based on our knowledge of then history of religion!

  10. Mark Shapiro says:

    Whether Levitt and Dub’s freakout over global warming as religion qualifies as anti-scientific or not, that and all the other points that they raise are old, tired, denier/delayer canards. They score pretty high on Tim Lambert’s global warming skeptic Bingo ( from way back in 2005!

    They are just throwing spitballs — very lucrative, rotten spitballs. I must admit that I am trying to think of questions for them should I see them at a book event . . .

  11. MarkB says:

    I left a comment on Levitt’s blog.

    Also, the UK case, handled by Justice Burton, states:

    “A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations”

    yet this ruling appears to violate:

    “It must be a belief and not an opinion or view based on the present state of information available.”

    at least for:

    “A belief in man-made climate change” (but not so much the “moral imperatives”)

    Present state of information available:

    So you’d have a much better argument that global warming deniers hold their beliefs religiously, since their fervent belief goes against the present state of information available. One could say the same about Levitt and his total faith in geoengineering.

  12. Tony says:

    MarkB is absolutely correct: the judge’s ruling is wrong on the face of it — unless Nicholson really does claim to hold his belief in global warming in spite of any change in the evidence. Of course, all the evidence supports the consensus, but being science-based means you follow the evidence, not what you want the evidence to be.

    I think the best thing for science-based followers of the debate would be for the ruling to be knocked down in appeal.

  13. MarkB says:

    ” Of course, all the evidence supports the consensus, but being science-based means you follow the evidence, not what you want the evidence to be.”

    Perhaps Burton means “following the evidence” is just faith, which is pretty ridiculous – as if every individual needs to be an expert scientist in a field, else general “beliefs” in gravity, medical science, etc. are each a religion.

  14. Sam Spade says:

    Does the British story have anything to do with religion?

    In today’s ruling, Mr. Justice Michael Burton decided that “A belief in man-made climate change, and the alledged resulting moral imperative, is capable if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations”.
    Under those regulations it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their religious or philosophical beliefs.
    The written ruling, which looked at whether philosophy could be underpinned by a scientific belief…ultimately concluded that a belief in climate change, while a political view about science, can also be a philosophical one.
    Guardian 3 Nov, from above link

    The legal discussion revolves around philosophical beliefs, not religious belefs.

    Of course I’m wrong if the philosophical list consists of just Atheists, Humanists, and Unitarians. And I acknowledge the contradicting leanings of the reporters: “akin to religion” and “religious discrimination”, and the choice of, “Why should it only be religions which are protected?”

  15. roger says:

    Actually, the problem is the absurd British law, which is having exactly the effect civil libertarians claimed. The reinstitution of blasphemy laws was par for the course of the pro-war Blair regime.

    I could easily worship the circulation of blood in the body – anything can be the object of a religion. The question is whether the object itself was constructed out of religious premises. This shouldn’t be difficult. I’ve actually heard that Levitt went to college, so he must vaguely remember the course about science.

  16. Phil Eisner says:

    I believe all this semantic wrangling is a waste of effort. There will always be writers trying to make money by pandering to their fans and fellow believer. Whatever the controversy, books with outlandish positions can attract attention and make money. Better, I believe, to devote all our efforts to get a cap and trade bill through the Senate and onto Obama’s desk as fast as possible.

  17. Richard Pauli says:

    They only are feeding on the vast audience hungry for any fantasy theater offering a story saying everything is OK now and will be OK in the future.

  18. Ron Broberg says:


    Yup. I agree. The “AGW is a religion” is part and parcel of the denier dogma – and Levitt using the meme is performing what is called a ‘dog-whistle’ in political circles. Levitt is letting everyone know that while he can sort of discuss the possibility of AGW on the one hand, he will do whatever he can to destroy any effort to deal with it on the other.

    That’s why Pielke, Jr, isn’t commenting on the book. He falls into the same category. Admit AGW exists on the one hand; do whatever he can to derail efforts to address it on the other.

  19. pete best says:

    It all looks like a behaviuor issue to me. Religion allegedly affects it and hence so would changing your usual expected life in favour of mitigating your cO2 emissions.

  20. David Lewis says:

    Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner appeared at the London School of Economics today giving a lecture and Q&A. So here is what they are saying as of today:

    “Moderator: “I was trying to get you to talk about the controversy a little bit…. …You know, Steve Levitt has been known to make mistakes, …this has been shown in your academic papers, and I think people have been talking about the content of your books as well. Does it mean we can’t trust anything you guys say… in Superfreakonomics?

    (Levitt coyly pretends not to understand that this question is about the climate chapter in his latest book) “abortion?…crime?…have I made other mistakes? I don’t remember making other mis….”

    Moderator mentions “police hiring”.

    Steve Levitt: “Oh yeah, that was actually the worst mistake – that was worse than – that actually WAS a mistake…. As a graduate student I did actually make a mistake….” (after a long explanation he sums up by saying “I don’t think I’m uncareful relative to other economists…”)

    [drops the coy tone] “With reference to the climate…. Let’s be completely clear. There have been allegations in the blogosphere by environmentalists that we have completely missed the boat on climate science – we got the science wrong, the scientists we are writing about have said that we misquoted them, that we misrepresented them… Anyways, it is simply not true. Every fact that we have in the chapter on climate science, virtually, is cited in the end notes, there is almost no one at this point, I think, who is claiming we have got the facts wrong. People don’t like the tone of the chapter, people don’t like our conclusions, but I do not think it is fair to say we have got the science wrong. There are some incredibly minor points. One sentence, that one of the scientists Ken Caldera didn’t like, which we’re changing in the revised version to add the word “may” (crowd laughs) – at his request. We gave him a copy of the chapter and said “we’ll change anything you want”, and he asked us to take out his name, so instead of saying “Caldera’s research”, [we’re now going to say] “research suggests that carbon is not the right villain”.”

    Stephen Dubner: “it should also be said that… the one phrase that the one scientist who has been largely written about as having his work misrepresented in the chapter, he was a participant in these long interviews that we did with a group of scientists and, beyond that, we did what is not always done with book writing, which is ask him and all the other scientists to actually read the entire chapter and offer any and all comments, which we incorporated. So you know it became this game of very strange case of going down a rabbit hole once some climate bloggers decided to attack on the grounds that he had been misrepresented, and it turns out that his version was really quite different – that he claimed responsibility for having read passages not well enough not thoroughly enough and so I… just for the record I agree entirely with Levitt. We’re waiting, and if there is anything factual or even in the spirit of what we write, that would prove to be wrong or wrong minded I think we’d gladly step up and address it and change it. That said, we should back up and… state what the argument is. I have a feeling that these conversations often travel in silos, they are very noisy within the silo and they often don’t radiate out. The point we were trying to make in the chapter was this: [sums up his argument that their main point in the book was to say that geoengineering solutions such as those they put forward in their book are worth considering]….When you get into a topic like global warming, about which there is huge emotion, and also huge political and financial and you know, almost a kind of activist core group where people feel very very strongly about it, it shouldn’t be so surprising that there’s been a lot of reaction, what’s been surprising to us is the level of reaction”.

    Steve Levitt: “What’s interesting when you read the climate science, and then look at the conclusions people come to, is that really, the scientific, uh, [by the way] we’re taking the science as given, just as the climate scientists… and what climate scientists often then do is embed that science with a sense of moralism about what we owe to future generations. And that’s really a dose of climate science with a dose of ethics and morality that lead to a conclusion. What we do is take the climate science and we put together the economics which is to try to answer what we think is the easier question, which is, if you had to cool the earth down in a real hurry what would be the cheapest way to do it. And that’s not the question that the climate scientists are talking about. That’s not what the public debate has been about. And yet it really is something that you’d want to know. Because if we come to the point because of the incredibly difficult problem of trying to get global cooperation, I mean we’re going to need the Chinese, and the Indians to all get together and say we’re going to radically reduce carbon dioxide – the fact that nothing has happened since Kyoto in a decade suggests that this is a hard problem, and that even if we stop now we could have trouble, and there’s tremendous cost. Left out of the climate debate is the fact that we’re talking about, to reduce carbon the estimates are we’re talking about 1 to 2% of GDP every year from now and on into the future. That’s a lot of money. And if there’s cheaper ways to do it. Not even to solve the problem. Because the geoengineering solutions we’re talking about are not fixes. They’re kind of like bandaids. They are ways to bide your time so that as technology progresses, until we can pull carbon out of the air more effectively, we end up keeping the Earth cool in the meantime until we can come up with some better solutions. … if you take away the emotion from it, its hard to argue with investments in this kind of knowledge. Whether or not we ever use them… the R&D costs are so low in relation to the potential benefits. Its really strange to me how one can be demonized for proposing these kinds of solutions when it seems to an economist – and almost every economist who has looked at the problem comes to the same exact solution, that we should be investing heavily in these kinds of solutions…”