“When I looked in her eyes they were blue,
but nobody home”BPSDB
I thought I was done with this particular tar baby and would just leave it to Brian to keep track of the ongoing discussion of Superfreakonomics, but like others (eg here and here) I just can’t seem to shake it off. Actually there are some good reasons to revisit it, so please bear with me … or jump right to “what you can do.”
It’s bad, seriously bad
Why it matters
What you can do
An interesting exchange took that took place on a forum a couple of days ago raised an important question generally, but with reference to Superfreaknonomics specifically. As is too often the case the more general discussion will have to wait while we deal with the Superfreaks.
On the forum in question Michael Tobis suggested that the blogosphere had a qualified victory with Superfreakonomics in managing to get the factual message ‘out there.’ Robert Grumbine quite reasonably asks “But just what has been achieved?”
My take on it is, he’s right (cf Tevye).
I do believe we have managed to achieve something, while also agreeing with Grumbine that we need to understand exactly what, and what it means. The baseline for judging whether we have “achieved something” was the ‘do nothing’ scenario. I agree with Michael Tobis that saying nothing would have be taken as de facto accepting the Superfreakonomics version of climate science as credible. That was not an acceptable possibility.
I think it is also fair and reasonable to also ask what we might have done instead, and what effect that may have had. Not that I have any ideas, but you never get ideas for alternatives if you don’t ask yourself every time.
I certainly don’t believe that we have hurt book sales. At best we may have shifted them somewhat, probably even helped sell more books since controversy never hurts sales.
What we have achieved is that when people search the internet for the book title the front page of the search gets at least some articles that are critical of it. Not enough of them, and not in the top 5 hits, but at least some are on the front page. The average person stands a reasonable chance of being made aware the the book has significant problems with it’s treatment of climate.
It’s bad, seriously bad
The climate chapter of the book is bad … really bad. The detailed critiques abound (and as discussed before) so I won’t repeat them; just to note that we’re not talking a few casual errors or some minor misinformation, we’re talking full on ignorance.
How bad? like actually using Happer as an alleged credible source and consequently screwing up 200 year old science that you can find in How and Why Wonder Books for ages 10 and up. … That bad. Adam Siegel captures it very well with “the truthiness-laden pages of Superfreakonomics“; ie there are not that many outright falsehoods per se, but the parsing and presentation are carefully constructed as to leave the naive reader far more ignorant and misinformed than they had been.
Over at Deltoid Hank Roberts brings up an important point in Superfreakonomics defense, sort of.
““The only significant error,” he [Caldeira] wrote to Romm, “is the line: ‘carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.’ That is just wrong and I never would have said it. On the other hand, I f&@?ed up. They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.” If that’s accurate…”
If it’s accurate then it does muddy the issue somewhat. Since Caldeira”never would have said it” it begs the question as to where they got their version of Caldeira’s views from, and whether they were knowingly misrepresenting him.
On the other hand they do seem to have exercised due diligence in offering it to Caldeira for comment, and they cannot be faulted for not making a correction that no one asked for.
UPDATE: 19:40 EST. OK, it’s even more complicated and nuanced than that … you judge “Caldeira explains the “right villain” episode”
Romm has kept up the pressure:
- Coauthor of Superfreakonomics apologizes to me
- Myhrvold jumps the shark — and jumps ship on Superfreakonomics
- Interviews support my reporting on Superfreakonomics
Two critiques of the authors “rebuttal” that I shouldn’t have missed (can’t read everything):
- Superfreaking lame response on global cooling issue
- Superfreaks latest defense: they weren’t answering the most important question about climate change
The upshot seems to be that it’s contrarianism for it’s own sake, and not particularly well done contrarianism at that:
Levitt and Dubner just parachute into the field of climate science and offer some lazy punditry on the subject dressed up as “contrarianism.” There’s no original research. There’s nothing bold or explosive. It’s just garden-variety ignorance.
- Superfreakonomics: How did they get climate change so wrong?
- Contrarianism without consequences
- Rules for Contrarians: 1. Don’t whine. That is all
On the plus side sites that do not typically discuss climate change are talking about it, and some of it is good (eg Superfreakonomics Panned For Getting Global Warming 100% Wrong). The axiom that any publicity is good publicity cuts both ways.
On the minus side, on too many sites it is not in an intelligent or informed discussion.
Take Are You A Real Scientist? Find Out Now! for example; amusing enough in it’s way, with the humourous flow chart and all, but it’s the usual climate change Denier fraud of pretending that the few dozen industry shills and cranks who propagate blatant frauds are somehow “real scientists”, whereas the millions who actually do climate research and/or base their conclusions on actual science are merely Al Gore puppets. For all I know this site may even be a generally intelligent one (I barely skimmed the other posts to ensure it was not a typical Denier site), but on the climate issue as seen in Superfreakonomics it is pure mis-informed Denierism.
Or “Eggheads Get All Riled Up Over Global-Warming Theories in SuperFreakonomics“; you can tell where that is going. Not ‘scientists’ (credible), but “Eggheads” (nerdy idiots). Not ‘object to obvious errors and misrepresentations’ (reasonable), but “Get All Riled Up” (irrational). Not ‘climate change science’ (fact based), but “Global-Warming Theories” (speculation). The actual article is not so bad and not nearly the hack job that the title would suggest, but I’ll bet it’s the tone of the title that it’s readers remember.
And then there are those who not only think that they now understand climate change, but that there is a cheap and effective solution. “Superfreaky solution to global warming” pretty much tells you what the article itself says, with absolutely no awareness of the huge problems and risks involved. How could they know? the book certainly doesn’t address them intelligently.
In the “more intelligent and informed” department we have things like Yoram Bauman (here and here) which is critical of Superfreakonomics and his articles are getting positive attention (eg here). Yglesias praises Bauman as he “avoids attacking the superfreaks with any kind of strong language, name-calling, imputations of bad faith, or, indeed, real sense of urgency.” Most of that is positive, but the latter, the lack of a “real sense of urgency” is both accurate and a concern. The trouble is that these critiques are … well … tepid.
The fact is that anyone not familiar with climate science is unlikely to appreciate just how inexcusably bad the chapter is. For the most part the problems are things that a bright high school senior should be expected to have gotten right, so it’s a shock that Dubner and Levitt got them so wrong.
I can see it leaving the public wondering if it isn’t a tempest in a teapot. It is so easy for people to fall into the mindset of ‘Bold new visionaries’ that the authors are, what does it matter that they got ‘a few details wrong’? It’s the Catch 22 of it not seeming important if you don’t ‘yell’, and sounding hysterical if you do. As an aside I have to wonder how much “name calling” and “bomb throwing” there would be if something this appallingly stupid had been written about economics.
Needless to say, the Denialosphere is having a field day as Deltoid documents in “What Do Superfreakonomics And Senator Inhofe Have In Common? No surprises there, but it adds to the noise that to the uninformed can seem as if the book has some credible support. How is the average person to know that Senator Laughing Stock from Hee Haw and Patrick Michaels are not credible sources for the time of day, much less climate science?
Why it matters
“Why does this matter? Because there’s a titanic battle going on over whether and how to reduce carbon emissions, and this soon-to-be bestseller tries to convince people that we don’t need to do so.”
Eric Pooley, Freakonomics Guys Flunk Science of Climate Change
“Remember the tobacco lobby tactics ? “Doubt is our product” was their motto and modus operandi. The Superfreakers build doubt about the Science of Climate Change into their presentation right from the start.”
Jo Abess, Superfreakonomics – Ooh Baby !
[“Where there’s smoke, the climate change Denial lobby” for more on climate Denierism and the tobacco lobby.]
Tom Olson compares Superfreaks (very unfavourably) to Katharine Hayhoe’s upcoming “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.” No doubt, but let’s face it, what are the respective readerships going to be like? In his review Tim Harford noted that “In the end, a book such as SuperFreakonomics stands or falls on its entertainment value. And on that count, there’s no doubt: it’s a page-turner.” There’s the rub, many more people are going to read Superfreakonomics than intelligent discussions of climate science.
Make no mistake, I’d love everyone to read it if they understood the basic science. There’s nothing like reading Denier dreck to really appreciate just how appallingly vacuous and idiotic the Deniers are.
Unfortunately many of those who read Superfreakonomics are going to be left with the impression that they actually learned something. In fact they would have learned more and better science from a kiddy site, but they won’t realize that.
Which brings me back to my original point, that we need to make sure that people are seeing the critiques of the book so that they at least know that the content should be regarded with suspicion (ie actual skepticism, what a concept!).
What you can do
When it comes to moving a post up in the search engines, links matter – a lot. Pick one or more of the critiques that you particularly like (or one of the compendiums) and get the some link out there. You can do this by:
- posting them to a blog or site if you have one;
- tweeting them;
- share them on social networks like Facebook and on forums;
- voting them up on any news sharing site that allow voting (eg Science &/or Earthblips, Stumble, Buzz, Digg, Care2, Reddit, etc;
- posting them to one or more of the above sites if they are not already there.
It matters, it really does, so please do it for at least one article by anyone that you liked (it also helps people to discover your favourite blogs – you will be doing some people a favour). Take two minutes right now and do it … please? 🙂
UPDATE: Freakonomics comes in for some more well deserved flack in the Associated Press global cooling story posted here.
“Since 1982, spring in East Asia (defined here as the eastern third of China and the Korean Peninsula) has been warming at a rate of one degree Fahrenheit per decade.” Earth Gauge
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