Steven Dubner Digs the Hole Deeper

As misleading as the Superfreakonomics chapter on climate change seemed to me yesterday, the email that Steven Dubner sent to Brad DeLong really compounds the sin. Dubner whines that Joe Romm “makes it sound as if we somehow twisted and abused Caldeira’s research; nothing could be further from the truth.”

Go here and read for yourself pages 184, 185, and the beginning of page 186 of Suprefreakonomics. The point, quite clearly, is to lead you to believe that “hard-charging environment activist and all-around peacenik” Ken Caldeira share the Levitt/Dubner view that (a) environmentalists are overstating the extent of the climate change problem, (b) curbing carbon dioxide emissions should not be our main tool in combatting climate change, and (c) that it’s useful to disparagingly analogize advocates of CO2 emissions curbs to those driven by religious faith rather than scientific expertise. Caldeira is called onto the floor to speak as a voice of sober-minded science against the misguided CO2-limiters.

And here’s what Caldeira himself thinks about that:

[Caldeira] has responded to many email queries of mine over the weekend so I could characterize his views accurately. He simply doesn’t believe what the Superfreaks make it seem like he believes. He writes me:

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.

One sentence about Caldeira in particular is the exact opposite of what he believes (page 184):

Yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.

Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira, and when he saw a version from Myrhvold, he objected to it. But Levitt and Dubner apparently wanted to keep it very badly—it even makes their Table of Contents in the Chapter Five summary “Is carbon dioxide the wrong villain?” It fits their contrarian sensibility, but it makes no actual sense.

Caldeira aside, it would be one thing if Levitt and Dubner wanted to make the argument that they have reason to believe that most scientists are mistaken about the climate change situation. But instead they make the claim that most environmentalists are mistaken about the climate change situation and that it’s Levitt & Dubner who are channeling the views of the scientific community. But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists “the fifth chapter of the book, ‘Global Cooling,’ repeats a large number of easily discredited arguments regarding climate science, energy production, and geoengineering.”

Of course it’s possible that the UCS is mistaken about some matters. And it’s possible that Ken Caldeira is mistaken about some things. But it’s not possible that Levitt and Dubner are correctly representing the views of Caldeira or climate scientists in general. Nor is it possible that Levitt and Dubner are correct when they assert that photovoltaic cells are black (they’re usually blue) nor is it correct to say that black PV cells lead to net increases in global temperature. These mistakes. A mixture of bad science and bad reportage on a crucial public policy issue, done by a writing duo who became famous for clever statistical analysis of trivial matters.