The freakonomists vs. the world

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Stephen Dubner and Nathan Myhrvold have now both written retorts to the many critiques of the chapter on global warming in the new book Superfreakonomics (which is co-authored by Dubner and economist Steven Levitt and stars, in its global warming segments, inventor-dude Myhrvold). They’re both mainly responding to the lengthy critique leveled by physicist/climate blogger Joe Romm, which I referenced in my post on Levitt last week.

Dubner counters Romm’s charge that he and Levitt twisted the words of climate scientist Kent Caldeira by demonstrating that Romm twisted Caldeira’s words too. After reading Romm’s rebuttal-of-the-rebuttal, though, I think Dubner-Levitt did more substantive twisting than Romm did (although who knows what I’ll think after reading Dubner’s-rebuttal-of-the-rebuttal-of-the-rebuttal). As for Myhrvold, he does seems to succeed in showing that he knows a bit more about solar power than Romm gave him credit for.

But I guess I’d have to mostly agree with the verdict rendered by my former boss Eric Pooley—who is an old friend of Dubner’s, has spent the last couple of years working on a book about global warming, and is one of the most fact-driven people I have ever known—that Dubner and Levitt come across in the global warming chapter as a couple of dilettantes out to provoke more than enlighten:

Dubner wonders why everyone is so angry. In part, it’s because the book’s blithe remedies — “We could end this debate and be done with it, and move on to problems that are harder to solve,” Levitt told the U.K. Guardian newspaper — are an insult to the thousands of scientists who have devoted their careers to this crisis.

I’m also not a fan of their continuing campaign to depict critics such as Romm as religious zealots out to stamp out heresy. Romm is certainly zealous, but it’s clear from reading his blog that he’s mainly out to stamp out the continuous stream of misinformation spewed out by global warming skeptics. That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily right, but he does seem pretty interested in facts.

Dubner and Levitt (and Myhrvold) aren’t global warming skeptics, and they have some interesting (and still valid) points to make on the subject. The big three seem to be (1) don’t put all too much stock in climate forecasts, because forecasting of complex systems is really hard, (2) eating meat may be worse for the global climate than driving a car (a stance backed up by a new report out from Worldwatch, which says livestock may account for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions), and (3) we should take geoengineering seriously as a way to attack global warming. I’m pretty sure they could have made all three of these points without bringing the wrath of the climate “zealots” (a.k.a. scientists and stuff) down upon them. Their chapter wouldn’t have been as contrarian and provocative, and contrarian and provocative is the freakonomists’ trademark. But the contrarianism and provocation seem to go over a lot better when it’s backed up by actual research done by Levitt or some kindred-spirit social scientist.

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