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Super Freaks of the Economics Profession

October 20th, 2009 · 11 Comments

Steve Levitt’s and Stephen Dubner’s Freaknomics was a great read. Interesting and provoking writing, underlining the value of taking commonly understood items, shaking the data, and seeing whether the common understandings could hold up to the light of day. Worth the read, especially because it is the sort of work where if you finish it not thinking and questioning things you obviously were snoozing in your speed read rather than paying attention. While there has been continued debate and analysis on many of Levitt’s conclusions (and approaches), this was a thought-provoking work that fostered intellectual engagement. In other words, you didn’t need to agree with it to gain from reading and thinking about it.

As an ‘analyst’ who values that sort of provocative challenge and who values windows to thinking in different ways, it came as welcome news that a follow-on book would come out this fall.

Sadly, however, this is one of those cases where the sequel isn’t just a disappointment but does a serious disservice to its predecessor.

As Levitt summarized his and Stephen Dubner’s book, “SuperFreakonomics, available this October, includes brand new research on topics from terrorism to prostitution to global warming.”

Superfreakonomics came out today and we’d all be better off if it just hadn’t …

The storm of controversy around it didn’t await publication as the chapter on “global warming” began to make the rounds and the outraged from those who actually understand the science and actually study the issue began to mount. As Yoram Baumann put it, politely, “the chapter is misleading and incredibly disappointing”. While Dubner and Levitt are fighting to claim that the reviewers are misrepresenting their work, calling it a “smear” (a response to Dubner by Joe Romm), the fact is that their work misrepresents science, is shallowly misleading, and is destructive to honest and meaningful discourse on what might likely be the most serious challenge humanity has faced since emerging from the caves. There have been, already, numerous critiques of this shallow work from economists to scientists who have read and dissected Chapter 5, What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common? This post does not seek to repeat that work (see some links below), since others have dissected Levitt’s and DeLong’s errors about the science, inflammatory (misleading) language, and failures on the economics.

As for the last, let us take just one Levitt claim to analyze the absurdity of his entire understanding of the climate challenge:


It is funny that both you and Krugman interpreted our weitzman cite as evidence we were skeptics! We took it the other way — if there is a 5% chance of catastrophe, yikes!! — we better do something. Weitzman must be an outlier in thinking that the chance of catastrophe is that high

First off, of course, is the fundamental question of “what is catastrophe”? If one had discussed or described decades ago putting the global system into an extraordinarily high extinction rate cycle, creating disrupted weather patterns from droughts to floods to heat waves, acidification of the oceans, glacier melts, and the many other aspects/impacts of climate change that we are already seeing, many people would have described that as “catastrophic” impacts. A several foot rise of the oceans, well within conservative scientific predictions for this century, would (will) threaten huge amounts of human infrastructure (ports, cities, beach resorts), threaten acquifers, and drive many people out of their homes (and nations out of existence). A simple question for Levitt: What is “catastrophe” or “catastrophic”?

Second, reasoned science (represented by, for example, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), basically every single National Academy or Royal Academy of Science, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the American Physics Society (APS), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), etc …) gives us a quite high chance of very serious impacts from disrupted agricultural patterns, desertification of regions (perhaps even nations), changed water patterns, extinctions, lost land due to saltwater infiltration of acquifers, and a host of other impacts. These are, not just in my opinion, easily meriting the term “catastrophic” in impacts. And, these scientists — working independently and together — rate these likelihoods at far greater than 5%. (Remember that the IPCC target of 450 ppm would provide, according to some analysis, a 50% chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.)

No, Levitt and Dubner focus on the analysis that suggests a 5% chance of a 10 degree celsius (18 degree fahrenheit) temperature rise globally, as if that is the catastrophe that merits focus.  We have very real likelihood of very real, massive catastrophic implications at temperature increases far, far below that. Even 1/10th of that increase, on top of where we are now, likely would have catastrophic implications.

Sadly, with his very large soap box, Levitt has not just done his reputation a disservice but has done a disservice to the very ability of this nation to have a thoughtful and reasoned discourse on the issue of Climate Change and what are the best national (and global) strategies/policies for mitigating and adapting to Global Warming.

When it comes down to it, SuperFreakonomics is Super Freaking out those with an understanding and concern about the challenges of dealing with climate change and the opportunities that smart policies to mitigate and adapt to it will create for Americans.

SuperFreaknomics is Super Freaking me out to the potential implications for the national discussion and Levitt is clearly a Super Freaky Economist who isn’t even standing on shaky legs with this work, but sinking into the quicksand of knowledgeable dissection and critique of his works errors.

Some Discussions of Superfreakonomics

  • Joe Romm’s masterful series Error-Ridden Superfreakonomics, most recently here, and which has included:
    1. Part 4 Economics errors
    2. Part 5: Ken Caldeira updates website to underline how Superfreaknomics misrepresents his views.
    3. Anatomy of a Debunking
  • J Bradford DeLong, *Sigh* Last Post on Superfreakonomics, I Promise with a page-by-page takedown of the chapter’s misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and misstatements of science. See also Six Questions for Levitt and Dubner (More Superfreakonomics Blogging)
  • Brad Johnson, Wonk Room, Answers For DeLong About The SuperFreaks, Part One, “Blogging economist J. Bradford DeLong has read the “global cooling” chapter of SuperFreakonomics … asked six wonkish questions about climate policy… The Wonk Room will be answering DeLong’s questions.” This post addresses the first two: about sea level rise and about trees.
  • Paul Krugman, Superfreakingmeta, ” in this crucial chapter, there’s an average of one statement per page that’s either flatly untrue or deeply misleading.”
  • Andrew Gelman, Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science: My review of Freaknomics 2, “The interesting question to me is why is it that “pissing off liberals” is delightfully transgressive and oh-so-fun, whereas “pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest? … If they’re not careful, this book will send them from the “popular science” to the “political punditry” category, with no turning back. Perhaps Freakonomics 3 will have a chapter explaining why evolution is just a theory, not actually proven at all?”
  • Yoram Bauman, A Bit more of SuperFreakonomics “In my opinion Levitt and Dubner fail to acknowledge a decade’s worth of scientific consensus about climate change, and they compound this failure by making not-factually-incorrect-but-nontheless-terribly-misleading comments about “true believers” and “heretics” and about “agnostics [who] grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions”. Put these two pieces together and I think you have an explanation for why they are getting so much push-back from folks saying that their analysis is “ideological and unscientific” and why their statement that “nothing could be further from the truth” rings hollow, at least in my ear.” (Bauman ends this post with a strong, important, valued caveat: “My caveat for the analysis above is that my eye is relatively untrained (remember that I’m an economist, not a climate scientist :) and that I’ve only read the chapter two or three times.”), Stand-Up Economist, More Superfreakonomics: emails from Steven Levitt which provides an absolutely mind-blowing series of emails demonstrating Levitt’s fundamental lack of understanding of climate change issues — economics or science or otherwise other than inflammatory rhetorical, Climate change in Superfreakonomics after highlighting that Levitt does not have research background on climate science (or on climate economics) provides a searing critique, page-by-page, highlighting the misleading shallowness of the chapter.
  • Gavin, RealClimate, with Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong acknowledges all the factual critiques, but looks to the core weakness of the chapter: “the reasons why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering so much are based on a misreading of the science, a misrepresentation of proposed solutions, and truly bizarre interpretations of how environmental problems have been dealt with in the past. These are, in the end, much worse errors than their careless misquotes and over-eagerness to shock highlighted by the other critiques. Geo-engineering is neither cheap, nor a fix, and the reasons why it is very likely to be a bad idea are ethical and legal, much more than its still-uncertain scientific merits.”
  • Union of Concerned Scientists, New Book “SuperFreakonomics” Mischaracterizes Climate Science “A follow-up to the bestselling book “Freakonomics” features a chapter that grossly mischaracterizes climate science, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The new book, “SuperFreakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, is slated to be officially released on October 20, 2009. Experts at UCS found that the fifth chapter of the book, “Global Cooling,” repeats a large number of easily discredited arguments regarding climate science, energy production, and geoengineering. The authors appear to have taken a purposefully contrarian position on climate change science and economics. While such a position may help draw attention to their book, their reliance on faulty arguments and distorted statistics does a disservice to their readers.” The post then continues to dissect the book, providing citations for highlighting its deceptions and misrepresentations.
  • Corbin Hier, Mother Jones, The Freaky Science of SuperFreakonomics, “focusing so narrowly on the possibility of a 10 degree rise ignores the very real risks of a temperature rise of anything above two degrees Celsius—which scientists have suggested is the maximum increase the planet can safely withstand. Indeed, last week I spoke with Weitzman and he described the high risk of catastrophe as an “inescapable property” of climate change. A three to nine degree increase in global average temperatures, which have a much
    greater than five percent likelihood in Weitzman’s models, would all certainly qualify as “terrible-case” scenarios.”
  • William Connelly, STOAT, SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling (and some other stuff)?, “I liked Freakonomics, so I’m a bit sad to see the (inevitable) sequel being so hopelessly wrong. Probably this is a case of the old rule: whenever you see people write about stuff you know, they get it wrong.

    “Diagnosis, in brief: (1) they write about stuff they clearly don’t understand (2) they pick a catchy reverse-common-wisdom nugget as a headliner without the having the slightest interest in whether it is true or not (mind you, plenty of more respectable folk do the same) (3) they pick an expert to talk to, but since they don’t have a clue about the subject they don’t know how to pick a good expert, or even understand what the expert says (4) there is a grain of sense in there, but so badly wrapped in trash it is nearly unfindable.”

  • Tim Lambert, Deltoid, Why Everything in Superfreakonomics About Global Warming Is Wrong, “I reviewed Freakonomics when it first came out and really liked it. So I was looking forward to the sequel Superfreakonomics. Unfortunately, Levitt and Dubner decided to write about global warming and have made a dreadful hash of it.

    “…the papers cited by Freakonomics were Levitt’s own work and he understood them, while Levitt and Dubner do not understand the climate science literature. This by itself would not be fatal, but what has taken them off the cliff is the Freakonomics formula: “What you thought you knew about X is wrong!”. If you want to apply this formula to global warming you can easily find many superficially plausible arguments on why the mainstream science is wrong. Bang those into your chapter on global warming without bothering to check their accuracy and the only work that remains is the tour to promote your book.”

  • Huffington Post, SuperFreakonomics Authors Forced To Answer Critics
  • Eric Pooley, Freakonomics Guys Flunk Science of Climate Change, “when Dubner, an old friend, told me their new book would take on climate change, I was rooting for a breakthrough idea.No such luck. In “SuperFreakonomics,” their brave new climate thinking turns out to be the same pile of misinformation the skeptic crowd has been peddling for years.” Pooley then goes through a devastating critique which includes this: “Levitt and Dubner do say that the book “overstates” Caldeira’s position. That’s a weasel word: The book claims the opposite of what Caldeira believes. Caldeira told me the book contains “many errors” in addition to the “major error” of misstating his scientific opinion on carbon dioxide’s role.”

Related to this, Natasha Chart’s recent comment:

It’s remarkable how often economists ignore physical reality. Whether they’re suggesting that economies can act as perpetual motion machines or suggesting that resource availability is meaningless to economic growth, I’m always prompted to think they should make science classes a mandatory part of the economics curriculum.

NOTE: For the most comprehensive collection of links re discussions of SuperFreakonomics, see: Brian D, Left as an Exercise, Fail: Superfreakonomics.

Tags: Energy · energy bookshelf

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 FAIL: Superfreakonomics « Left as an Exercise // Oct 20, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    [...] A. Seigel: Super Freaks of the Economics Profession [...]

  • 2 JH Bahn // Oct 21, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Seems to me that you have violated your own observation from the first book: “In other words, you didn’t need to agree with it to gain from reading and thinking about it”.

    Several things.

    The challenge, however, is that this work is so fundamentally flawed.

    I am now reading other parts of the book and other problems.

    I am wondering if my valuing of the first book came, in part, from an inadequate knowledge base by which to judge the work. Some closer to the first book’s material are stating that Levitt actually had substantive knowledge in the first while it is clear that he lacked command of the substantive material in this book. Thus, did I enjoy the first book because it was farther from areas where I had some degree of substantive knowledge and experience — thus, my ‘ignorance’ allowed me to enjoy it — or was it that Levitt actually knew what he was talking about in that first book while venturing into areas which he doesn’t understand here?

    FYI — elsewhere, commentators have highlighted examples of fundamental problems in the first book which, as per above, I might simply have missed on that first, all-too-casual read.

  • 3 Superfreakonomic-expialidocious “I did not deny climate change with that woman!” « Greenfyre’s // Oct 22, 2009 at 7:43 am

    [...] Super Freaks of the Economics Profession [...]

  • 4 Global Cooling Myth shattered by AP-sponsored statisticians ‘blind’ test // Oct 26, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    [...] appearing in multiple venues and gaining visibility (such as via the truthiness-laden pages of Superfreakonomics (see here and here and, well, tens of other sites/posts )), being a centerpiece of [...]

  • 5 Fellow Univ of Chicago Professor Owns Super Freaky Economist Levitt // Oct 30, 2009 at 11:03 am

    [...] of Chicago Geosciences, has published An Open Letter to Steven Levitt, the nation’s Super Freakiest Economist. To put it simply, Pierrehumbert owns Levitt. By now there have been many detailed dissections of [...]

  • 6 Energy Bookshelf: A Super Ten more worth your time and money than Freaked-out Freakonomics // Nov 13, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    [...] each have greater value for advancing our national discussion than distortions and deceptions from the Super Freaks of Economics profession.  The list of published 2009 books that are more worthy of your attention would not go on for [...]

  • 7 Kolbert turns her pen to some Super Freaky Economics // Nov 13, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    [...] energy and environmental issues. In the latest New Yorker, she turned a quite critical pen to the Super Freaky Economists with her review of [...]

  • 8 A. Siegel: Energy Bookshelf: Ten more worth your time than Super Freaky Crap « Daily News // Nov 14, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    [...] each have greater value for advancing our national discussion than distortions and deceptions from the Super Freaks of Economics profession. The list of published 2009 books that are more worthy of your attention would not go on for pages, [...]

  • 9 New record temperatures all the time: of course George Will and deniers will write about this! // Nov 17, 2009 at 6:27 am

    [...] that ocean temperatures are the hottest we’ve ever recorded or …)  Now, George Will, Super Freaky Economists, and others ready to deceive on climate change issues use the (truthiness laden and statistically [...]

  • 10 Scholars and Rogues » Trust us – we’re smarter than you: climate and Superfreakonomics // Dec 4, 2009 at 10:34 am

    [...] A Siegel at GetEnergySmartNow has a number of good links. [...]

  • 11 CrisisMaven // Jan 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm

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