‘Academic Malpractice’: Fellow U Of C Professor Calls Steve Levitt Out For ‘Laziness And Sloppiness’

Adding his voice to a chorus of criticism, a University of Chicago climate scientist finds his colleague, economist Steven Levitt, guilty of “academic malpractice” in SuperFreakonomics. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, the Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences, responded to one of the many scientifically illiterate assertions into the book, that “the problem with solar cells is that they’re black” — so that the heat reradiated from the cells “contributes to global warming.” As Pierrehumbert explains in detail in the RealClimate science blog, the albedo debt of solar cells is minimal compared to the amount of warming from burning fossil fuels to produce a comparable amount of electricity:

The point here is that really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you that the claim that the blackness of solar cells makes solar energy pointless is complete and utter nonsense. I don’t think you would have accepted such laziness and sloppiness in a term paper from one of your students, so why do you accept it from yourself? What does the failure to do such basic thinking with numbers say about the extent to which anything you write can be trusted? How do you think it reflects on the profession of economics when a member of that profession — somebody who that profession seems to esteem highly — publicly and noisily shows that he cannot be bothered to do simple arithmetic and elementary background reading? Not even for a subject of such paramount importance as global warming.

“And it’s not as if the ‘black solar cell’ gaffe was the only bit of academic malpractice in your book,” Pierrehumbert continues, citing Levitt’s false portrayal of geoengineered stratospheric cooling as a “a harmless and cheap quick fix for global warming.” Pierrehumbert recommends Levitt walk five blocks for some “friendly help next time”:

May I suggest that if you should happen to need some friendly help next time you take on the topic of climate change, or would like to have a chat about why aerosol geoengineering might not be a cure-all, or just need a critical but informed opponent to bounce ideas off of, you don’t have to go very far. For example…

But given the way Superfreakonomics mangled Ken Caldeira’s rather nuanced views on geoengineering, let’s keep it off the record, eh?


Levitt responded at Chris Mooney’s Intersection blog and on RealClimate, accusing Pierrehumbert of an “intentional misreading of my chapteron global warming,” claiming that he “totally misses the point” because “Myhrvold’s main argument was about the energy required to *make* the solar panels, not the radiated heat.”


However, Pierrehumbert rightfully had dismissed that fallacy as well: “A more substantive (though in the end almost equally trivial) issue is the carbon emitted in the course of manufacturing solar cells.” The exact same kind of basic arithmetic Pierrehumbert used to demonstrate that albedo issues are practically irrelevant applies to the construction issue, as shown previously at the Wonk Room.