SuperFreaks claim book doesnt have “a moral or policy perspective.” Yet they wrote, “Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception” and warming is “at the forefront of public policy.”

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"SuperFreaks claim book doesnt have “a moral or policy perspective.” Yet they wrote, “Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception” and warming is “at the forefront of public policy.”"

Yesterday, SuperFreakonomics co-author Steven Levitt said his book’s erroneous statement on recent global temperature trends was just an attempt at “irony” (see Caldeira “” “To talk about global cooling at the end of the hottest decade the planet has experienced in many thousands of years is ridiculous.” Levitt “said he does not believe there is a cooling trend”!!).

He and coauthor Stephen Dubner also continued their national media disinformation tour on public radio’s Diane Rehm Show.  I couldn’t stomach listening to their efforts to either walk back or obfuscate key errors and misrepresentations in their book error-riddled book.  Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson has a stronger digestive system than I do, so he listened to the show and I’ll repost his response.

Levitt and Dubner dismissed the widespread criticism of their book by Nobel Prize-winning economists and climate scientists as the “work of an activist,” evidently referring to physicist and former Department of Energy official Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Levitt and Dubner even tried to laugh off the on-air criticism of Dr. Peter Frumhoff, a global change ecologist who is the director of Science and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The authors represent their book as merely a quizzical look at interesting issues, without “a moral or policy perspective“:

Just in case you’re happening upon this conversation in the middle and haven’t grasped the kind of perspective that we’re coming from “” we don’t write about prostitution, or terrorism, or global warming or any of these things, really, from a moral or policy perspective. We just try to lay out what’s going on and from that let people proceed how they want to think about it or how they want to draw conclusions. So this is not meant to be an endorsement or a condemnation of any of these things. We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on.

[JR:  In short, readers can safely ignore all of their conclusions.]

Listen here:

This depiction, like most of the SuperFreaks’ defense of their work, bears little resemblance to the actual text. The authors discuss global warming explicitly through a “policy perspective”:

It is this specter of catastrophe, no matter how remote, that has propelled global warming to the forefront of public policy. . . . So how should we place a value on this relatively small chance of worldwide catastrophe? . . . One good reason for waiting is that we might have options in the future to avert the problem that cost far less than today’s options.

The authors condemn a broad array existing policy efforts: to limit carbon dioxide emissions (“not the right villain”), to establish carbon pricing (“all we can say is good luck”), expand renewable energy (“cute”), limit deforestation (trees are an “environmental scourge”), clean up transportation (“not that big of a sector”), or reduce coal use (“economic suicide”).

They also discuss global warming explicitly through a “moral perspective,” condemning “the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion,” with a “high priest,” “patron saint,” and “doomsayers” responsible for a “drumbeat of doom.” The authors quote Microsoft billionaire Nathan Myhrvold, who accuses advocates of policies other than geo-engineering of being “global-warming activists” who want to “do a set of things that could have enormous impact “” and we think probably negative impact “” on human life.”

On the other hand, the SuperFreaks provide a strong endorsement for pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere forever as a “cheap and simple solution” that is “practically free” with a “proof of harmlessness.” Its biggest problem, they claim, is that it is “too simple and too cheap.” They claim climate scientist Ken Caldeira has endorsed this policy “solution,” but policymakers only listen to “people like Al Gore,” who think “it’s nuts.” Somehow Levitt and Dubner fail to mention that Caldeira himself has actually said the SuperFreaks’ policy perspective is ridiculous:

As a long-term strategy, it’s nuts.

Bizarrely, Levitt and Dubner never once mention the one policy area that is universally recognized as being “cheap and simple” by economists and scientists alike “” boring energy efficiency. Guess they were too busy chatting with call girls and mosquito-laser billionaires.

Update:  During the interview, Levitt dismisses ocean acidification as something that isn’t “an incredibly big problem,” concedes that geo-engineering “isn’t a perfect solution” and admits that “we won’t solve this without dealing with the carbon issue,” but then calls geo-engineering “a solution to a particular problem” (namely, the warming of the earth).
– Brad Johnson
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20 Responses to SuperFreaks claim book doesnt have “a moral or policy perspective.” Yet they wrote, “Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception” and warming is “at the forefront of public policy.”

  1. caerbannog says:

    Another problem with pumping SO2 into the stratosphere is that it doesn’t address the temperature *distribution* problem. Even if the SO2 scheme kept the Earth’s average surface temperature down, it would do nothing to alleviate changes in the equatorial->polar temperature gradient.

    Big changes in that temperature gradient would almost certainly mean big changes in weather patterns (rainfall distribution and the like). And those weather-pattern changes will be far more problematic for us than will changes in average global temperatures. Geoengineering completely fails to address that problem.

  2. caerbannog says:

    I particularly liked this response to the SuperFreaks over at the NY Times — nicely framed in such a way that the average joe should “get it”:

    In your book you quote Myhrvold and Wood as they slam climate models as “crude” and accuse climate scientists of intentionally biasing their models -a serious charge you take no effort to confirm or refute.

    However, the projected effectiveness of the “stratoshield” geo-engineering plan is based entirely on simulations using the exact same climate models.

    So which is it? Are the models too crude and biased? Or do they show that pumping sulfur into the stratosphere will help cool the planet? The eruption of Pinatubo is not a thorough support for your position: there is a big difference between a onetime occurrence and a recurring process… you can’t establish a trend from one data point.

    Either the models work or they don’t… you can’t have it both ways.

    It definitely has that “now why didn’t *I* think of this” feel to it.

    (linky: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/the-superfreakonomics-global-warming-fact-quiz/?apage=3#comment-509117 )

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    These guys are just digging themselves deeper and deeper into a zero-credibility hole.

    And, at this point, the publisher should really retract the book. Publishers have responsibilities too, including to society at large and to their own credibility (unless they are positioning this as a book of fiction).

    So let’s see, the book gets key facts wrong, misinterprets key experts, misquotes them or quotes them out of context, says things that the authors now say are meant to be “ironic”, doesn’t really mean what it says or say what they mean, isn’t about political policy or morality, and etc. etc. Sounds like a very good book NOT to be published, especially on such a vital matter to public well-being.

    Meanwhile, The New York Times has still not covered the letter sent by the AAAS and seventeen other scientific organizations to members of the Senate, regarding climate change. At least, as far as I can tell. I haven’t seen it in any of the recent papers (The Times), and I can’t find any mention of it in the paper itself in a search on The Times’ website.

    Be Well,

    Jeff

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    Off-topic # 1: I think I’m out of Joe’s when-will-oil-hit-$100-again contest. I had predicted September 2009 (resulting from a falling dollar). Oil “only” hit $80 — and I’m happy to be wrong.

    Off-topic #2: My quixotic quest for a DC standard (which a couple faithful readers may recall) is coming to partial fruition! EU and most cell phone makers agreed to a micro-USB standard for cell-phones — just one charger for all of them. It will spread quickly. Then all we need is a higher voltage, higher wattage standard for larger DC devices like computers, TVs, and LED lighting . . .

    On – topic: Levitt and Dubner are not only wrong, evil, and unfunny; they are plagiarists. Check out their score on Tim Lambert’s Global Warming Skeptic Bingo card —
    scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2009/10/why_everything_in_superfreakon.php

  5. Scatter says:

    Mark

    You might like to get in contact with Moixa Energy:

    http://www.moixaenergy.com/page.asp?pageid=24

  6. Mike#22 says:

    Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos interviewed Dubner last Friday morning, and “specifically read a portion of UCS’s criticism of the global warming chapter to Stephen Dubner. Unfortunately, Dubner did not respond directly to UCS’s criticism.” (from UCS site)(great work UCS)

    I watched the video. Dubner had a section of old black garden hose. This is it, he tells us, all we need to solve global warming. Well, that, and Intellectual Ventures. 18 miles of rubber hose.

    Picture 18 miles of anything, held aloft by a series of helium balloons. And a fifty mph wind. The AeroHose would be subject to massive tension in the lower sections. Thicken up the Aerohose? More balloons, more drag. Thicken the AeroHose. Repeat. Well, they must have thought this all through, because they are all super polymaths, right?

  7. Jonathan says:

    Have you seen the “The SuperFreakonomics Global-Warming Fact Quiz” which is posted on the New York Times website with an October 23rd date. I have training in both physics and economics. I cannot believe that the “Superfreakeconomists” actually believe that extrapolating from Mt. Pinatubo, a one time geological incident, to pumping a periodic or steady supply of Sulphur Dioxide makes sense. Don’t they understand non-linear effects, especially non-linear responses to a stimulus?

    I will answer my own question with: probably not because most economists seem to mostly talk in terms of linear responses to stimuli. That said, I am going to have to ask around about the use of non-linear mathematics in economics. Perhaps that is why we have economic bubbles that burst.

  8. If they claim the book “doesn’t have a moral perspective,” maybe we should conclude that it has an immoral perspective: say things that are provocative to sell as many books as possible, without caring whether the things you say are true.

  9. dhogaza says:

    We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on.

    Odd. The book appears to be written in a style that insists that they had already figured out what’s going on.

    Is lying a prerequisite for becoming a famous Chicago-school economist, or is it a perquisite given one after they’ve become a famous Chicago-school economist?

  10. mikkel says:

    “I will answer my own question with: probably not because most economists seem to mostly talk in terms of linear responses to stimuli. That said, I am going to have to ask around about the use of non-linear mathematics in economics. Perhaps that is why we have economic bubbles that burst.”

    You are absolutely, 100% correct. Even economists like Paul Krugman don’t recognize non-linear, time dependent functions. They haven’t even heard of partial differential equations.

    I have spent a lot of time studying modern economic theory and all its holes are extremely visible and easily explained by systems theory. I have yet to see a formal economic school that recognizes this (Hyman Minsky definitely got the major points of it without getting too much into the math) but all the control systems theorists have a lot better grasp of the economy than the mainstream and they all saw the crisis coming years ago.

    Sorry for going off about this on a climate blog, but it does have relevance. I have second hand experience with climate models and know the theory pretty well, and everything that is wrong with economics and is leading to misery is right in climate prediction. Freakonomics in particular is rather correct on some of the flaws in economics, but they don’t have the self awareness to realize that the fundamental things they are criticizing there have been taken to heart when talking about global warming.

    We’re at a point where the two biggest threats to society are because people think we have no understanding in a field where we do, and have false understanding in another.

  11. Jeff Huggins says:

    Dear Jonathan (Comment 7) and mikkel (Comment 10),

    If either or both of you would be interested, I’d be interested in getting your thoughts (via a brief correspondence) regarding the nature of the relationship between mathematics and the dynamics and realities of nature. As part of that, I’m interested in the fact that linear thinking, and linear extrapolations, in all sorts of fields that largely rely on linearity (parts of economics included, I guess) often don’t match the way things really work. Put another way, I’m interested in the gaps that occur (and why certain professions ignore them) when linear thinking and extrapolations are not in concert with a scientific, empirical understanding of how things work.

    So, if you’d be willing to share your thoughts (I’d be happy to pose some specific questions), please do let me know, in this space, and how best to get in touch with you. Or, if you like, you can reach me through my website, which is www DOT ObligationsOfReason DOT com . You can send me a message via the “Contact the Author” page of the site.

    Be Well,

    Jeff Huggins

  12. marianna says:

    I feel so much better knowing ocean acidification isn’t going to be a big problem. All those alarmist marine and invertebrate biologists and oceanographers are pulling the wool over our eyes. Ocean acidification is the 2nd biggest hoax (after global warming) perpetrated on the public. Glad we have two intrepid amateurs to show us how the entire science community is wrong yet again. [/snark and sarcasm]

  13. JoshKaplowitz says:

    Gah! As much as I usually love the guy, Jon Stewart blew it tonight in his interview with Levitt. I’m sure it will be posted on Comedy Central’s web site soon enough, if you can stomach it.

  14. Andy Olsen says:

    I have to agree, and I’m a big fan!

    He misrepresented the critics’ arguments. That’s a typical cable news maneuver.

  15. Mark Shapiro says:

    Scatter –

    thanks for the tip about Moixa Energy — their low power supply, which could connect DC from PV cells directly to DC devices, looks good, but there aren’t details, and it looks like it is proprietary.

    I would like to see a plug and play standard that all manufacturers — of DC power supplies and DC appliances — would adhere to. The Micro-USB standard that the cell-phone companies just adopted as a “Universal Charger Solution” is a great start, but it tops out at 5 V and maybe 10 watts.

    the USB article in Wikipedia notes the Powered USB standard that handles 6V, 12V, and 24V, up to 140 watts. It looks big, bulky, expensive, and proprietary, but it or a simpler version could do it.

  16. Andy Olsen says:

    I started a discussion on The Daily Show’s Facebook page regarding the interview:

    http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?topic=11989&uid=7976226799#/topic.php?uid=7976226799&topic=11989

  17. Mike D says:

    Jon Stewart is hilarious and good at making people look ridiculous by pointing out their hypocrisies but he rarely has a real grasp of any issues… he’s a comedian.

  18. jorleh says:

    Economics some science? This Levitt doing science? What is economics for, if chaps in the discipline are nuts? I thought Lomborg is the utmost clown, but this Levitt takes the biscuit.

  19. Dana says:

    I was really disappointed with the Daily Show interview. Not surprised, because Jon Stewart’s interviews are rarely hard-hitting or critical of the interviewee. Still, the climate change chapter was badly misrepresented in the interview. They made the unreasonable geoengineering-only approach sound reasonable, and totally ignored the many false claims made in the chapter. Total bummer of an interview.

  20. Chris Dudely says:

    In response to the feakenomics quiz I posted this at Greeninc: http://community.nytimes.com/comments/greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/on-our-radar-16/?permid=1#comment1

    Again, I won’t post at feakenomics since it is inefficient but I would say that the current post that you link here is not one you’d take home to mother. The way they abuse the Stern Report may be very kinky, but it isn’t economics. The Stern Report found that the 1% or so of GDP cost of switching off of fossil fuels stacked up well against the avoided cost of ecological collapse if nothing is done. In the post you link, only the cost of switching is considered yet there is no acknowledgment that the cost of ecological collapse remains if their proposed actions are undertaken since ocean ecosystems will not survive. Further, the expense of switching off of fossil fuels is one we will pay eventually in any case so nothing is really saved in their proposal, yet there is an ongoing useless expense that they add that won’t terminate for thousands of years. Thus, their proposal is vastly more expensive than switching off of fossil fuels. Whatever they are doing, it isn’t economics and they’d be better off disappearing into Room 714 rather than airing this stuff in public.