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Fellow Univ of Chicago Professor Owns Super Freaky Economist Levitt

October 30th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Professor Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences at the University 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 everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics , but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense. If you were stupid, it wouldn’t be so bad to have messed up such elementary reasoning, but I don’t by any means think you are stupid. That makes the failure to do the thinking all the more disappointing.

Pierrehumbert then takes one specific point from the chapter to highlight this “failure to do the thinking”.  Pierrehumbert’s examination of the issue of whether solar cells’ low albedo (high absorption of solar energy & thus heat) makes it senseless to pursue solar power provides a tour de force examination of the basics of research (using the web) and how Levitt seems to have totally flubbed.

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.

Rather than seeking to summarize or crib his work, let me simply emphasize that Pierrehumbert’s discussion is highly recommended reading — for the substance and style.

Now, Steve Levitt has chosen to respond to Pierrehumbert, at least indirectly (Levitt does not, at this time, have a comment at RealClimate in response to Pierrehunt’s critique), with a comment to a Chris Mooney post:

Except that Myhrvold’s main argument was about the energy required to *make* the solar panels, not the radiated heat. The critique totally misses the point. See here.

As with much of what Levitt is saying and writing at this time (especially, but not solely, related to climate science and climate economics’ issues), there is truth and truthiness here.

1. Truth: The primary discussion in Superfreakonomics of Myhrvold re solar power (187-188) is on the lag time of catching up with the embedded carbon footprint of solar due to construction buildup/payback times. This is truthiness, however, since it is not compared to plans for coal, what implications would be if coal were shut down due to solar developments, and doesn’t address same issue when it comes to nuclear power / etc …

2. More importantly, Levitt is being disingenuous (crazy like a fox?) since the opening paragraph to “too optimistic” (p 187), leading into that discussion of the embedded carbon, reads:

“A lot of the things that people say would be a good thing probably aren’t,” Myhrvold says. As an example, he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12 percent gets turned into electricity and the rest is reradiate as heat — which contributes to global warming.”

Hmmm … this is the point that Pierrehumbert addresses.  It is hard to see how any fair reader would agree that he “totally misses the point”.

Levitt seems to to be refusing to engage Pierrehumbert’s devastating critique of that one paragraph by holding up a bright shiny object and saying “what about that other thing?”   My question to Levitt: Why not deal with the critique at hand rather than trying to move on to that next thing?

However, if you want to move on to that next thing, do you have a response to the devastating critique of “that other thing by Brad Johnson at Wonkroom (Myhrvold’s Folly)?

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Tags: analysis · climate change · Energy · Global Warming

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