Seriously, when economists wonder why the rest of us think they're clueless muttonheads with a dangerous entitlement complex, I think they can rest assured that we're talking about things like this:
“Rogue” is a good word for Levitt, but I think “contrarian” is more apt. Sadly, for Levitt’s readers and reputation, he decided to adopt the contrarian view of global warming, which takes him far outside of his expertise. As is common among smart people who know virtually nothing about climate science or solutions and get it so very wrong, he relies on other smart contrarians who know virtually nothing about climate science or solutions. In particular, he leans heavily on Nathan Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft, who has a reputation for brilliance, which he and the Superfreaks utterly shred in this book:I trust you to realize why the quoted bit is absolute blithering idiocy. ClimateProgress goes into great detail if you're wondering, but I doubt you would be, since most people would just respond to this with a hearty "WTF?"“A lot of the things that people say would be good things probably aren’t,” Myrhvold 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% gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat — which contributed to global warming.”Impressive — three and a half major howlers in one tiny paragraph (p 187). California Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld called this “patent nonsense,” when I read it to him. And Myhrvold is the guy, according to the Superfreaks, of which Bill Gates once said, “I don’t know anyone I would say is smarter than Nathan.” This should be the definitive proof that smarts in one area do not necessarily translate at all.
So what's gone wrong here? Well...
This is classic, classic economist behavior, where they move into another science and start babbling whatever crap comes to mind as long as it sounds good and fits their axiomatic dogma. A lot of people have already asked a lot of questions about Levitt's methodology. But as we see here, the methodology doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it, because the damned thing didn't have methodology worth the name to begin with!
The reason I’m calling Levitt and Dubner Superfreaks for short is that Chapter Five of SuperFreakonomics, the “Global Cooling” chapter — aka “What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?” — has precious little economics, and what it does have is simply wrong. So the book could easily have been titled Superfreaks. [Note: Most of the book is searchable online. At the request of the publisher, I have taken down the PDF of the chapter.]
The answer is that Gore and Pinatubo’s eruption both suggest a way to cool the planet, albeit with methods whose cost-effectiveness are a universe apart.
Yes, the Superfreaks frame this chapter mostly as their (misguided) view of the science versus the views of that famous non-scientist Al Gore (as opposed to the views of all of the scientists who disagree with the crap they are peddling). That straw man approach gives them the “high” ground.
But by embracing aeresols and rejecting mitigation, they have adopted the identical view of that rogue, thoroughly debunked, non-economist Bjorn Lomborg. Unlike the Superfreaks, CP readers know that Ken Caldeira calls the vision of Lomborg’s Climate Consensus “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story.”
And yet Caldeira is the primary practicing climate scientist the Superfreaks rely on in the chapter! He has responded to many e-mail queries of mine over the weekend so I could characterize his views accurately. He simply doesn’t believe what the Superfreaks make it seem like he believes. He writes me:
If you talk all day, and somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context because they want to make a provocative and controversial chapter, there is not much you can do.
It used to be that this sort of thing only happened in the social sciences and in historiography, where economists would barge in, brandishing whatever model happened to to be at hand, and proclaim that they have a solution that all the "little people" that came beforehand should just shut up and accept. Never mind that they removed all the evidence that didn't fit with all the surgical skill of a medieval barber. What was worst about this sort of dilletantism was that their statements were inevitably wrong, and did tremendous damage.
That's what we saw with Lomborg. Everybody who knows a damned thing about climate change knows that Bjorn Lomborg was completely off his rocker, and smacked him down multiple times: first when he tried to dismiss global warming, and then again when he tried to pull some sleight of hand by claiming that what he was really advocating was lovely things like malaria nets and childhood innoculation...as if it were climate change that were the problem there. But because he's an economist and therefore part of the "proper" tribe, he gets his sounding board whether he's right or not. Sure, there are other scientists who carry water for the polluters, but they're usually in fields that at least have something vaguely to do with ecology and meteorology. Lomborg is (when you get right down to it) a glorified sociologist! He has absolutely no business even discussing this field! But he does, because he gets the pass. So does Levitt.
And when these people misuse this power, as they inevitably do, it's the real scientists (and the rest of us) that inevitably have to clean up the messes. Except that with climate change, there may not be a "rest of us" to do it. But, hey, as long as it sells books, right?
The hat tip goes to Krugman. I'm a bit uncomfortable about his positioning on this one, though. I remember his old "dismal science" column, where he used to play this card with gusto. He's since recovered from his own bout of economists' entitlement. That's a good thing.
It's still important to remember that this is a serious, serious problem with social science that goes back years, not a "right wing vs. left wing" or "Krugman vs. Levitt" issue. (Privileging economists like that is the entire problem.)
It won't be solved by ideological wrangling. It'll be solved by economists rediscovering a bit of humility, and other scientists rediscovering their ability to tell that obnoxious economist to,
"sit the hell down and shut the hell up".