Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Great Load of Horses**t

Elizabeth Kolbert's takedown of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's execrable Superfreakonomics is one of the most elegant and devastating critiques I've read since Matt Taibbi carved up Tom Friedman with that immortal line "Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one."

In the review, she repeats the old story about how New York was, at the turn of the century, threatened by literal mountains of horseshit:

The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent. When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situation. Unable to agree upon any solutions—or to imagine cities without horses—the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days.

Then, almost overnight, the crisis passed. This was not brought about by regulation or by government policy. Instead, it was technological innovation that made the difference. With electrification and the development of the internal-combustion engine, there were new ways to move people and goods around. By 1912, autos in New York outnumbered horses, and in 1917 the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar made its final run. All the anxieties about a metropolis inundated by ordure had been misplaced.
SuperFreakonomics (yecch, what a title) brings it up as an analogy to the importance of technological innovation. Kolbert repeats it as an analogy of the book itself, considering that it appears to be, well, a mountain of horseshit.

Leave aside their touching faith in Matrix-style atmospheric reengineering. I enjoy science fiction, but even I don't have much faith in [i]that[/i] rot. No, what is really galling is the spectacle of economists who haven't done the math:

Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is a climatologist who, like Levitt, teaches at the University of Chicago. In a particularly scathing critique, he composed an open letter to Levitt, which he posted on the blog RealClimate.

“The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them,” he observes. “The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking.” Pierrehumbert carefully dissects one of the arguments that Levitt and Dubner seem to subscribe to—that solar cells, because they are dark, actually contribute to global warming—and shows it to be fallacious. “Really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you,” he writes, that this claim “is complete and utter nonsense."

Kolbert's position? They're just trying to be clever and contrarian. They don't really care about climate change per se, they're just trying to be cute and sell books. Paul Krugman (who also linked to this piece) noted that this was a big problem with a certain breed of economists:

Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counterintuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

It looks as if Superfreakonomics has gone way over that line.
And why does this sort of thing tend to be aimed at liberals? Well:

I have a theory here, although it may not be the whole story: it’s about careerism. Annoying conservatives is dangerous: they take names, hold grudges, and all too often find ways to take people who annoy them down. As a result, the Kewl Kids, as Digby calls them, tread very carefully when people on the right are concerned — and they snub anyone who breaks the unwritten rule and mocks those who must not be offended.

Annoying liberals, on the other hand, feels transgressive but has historically been safe. The rules may be changing (as Dubner and Levitt are in the process of finding out), but it’s been that way for a long time.

The “tell”, I’d suggest, is that once you get beyond those for whom the decision about whom to laugh at is a career move, people don’t, in fact, seem to find mocking liberals funnier than mocking conservatives. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are barreling along, while right-wing attempts to produce counterpart shows have bombed.

Anyway, say this for Dubner and Levitt — they’ve provoked an interesting discussion, although probably not the one they hoped for.
Kolbert compares them to Al Gore, who is roundly castigated by The Usual Suspects but appears to be honestly, truly interested in helping the world. From her discussion of his new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis:

Like Levitt and Dubner, Gore argues that if people simply put their minds to it they could figure out a way to deal with global warming. “We have at our fingertips all of the tools we need to solve three or four climate crises—and we only need to solve one,” he writes. But the similarities end there.

Where Levitt and Dubner avoid climate scientists, Gore appears to have talked to just about every one of them. (The acknowledgments for “Our Choice” run to four single-spaced pages of tiny type.) If you’re curious about the relative contribution each of the major greenhouse gases makes to climate change, Gore has it. (CO2 is the largest contributor, followed by methane.) If you want to know how a photovoltaic cell works, or a solar thermal tower, or where the ten largest wind farms in the United States are, you can find that in the book as well. Gore runs through the difficulties of feeding power from intermittent sources, like the sun and the wind, into the electrical grid, and describes how these difficulties might be overcome. He discusses carbon capture and sequestration, nuclear energy, agricultural policy, and conservation.

Just about the only strategy for coping with climate change that Gore isn’t interested in is geoengineering. Indeed, the very idea strikes him as delusional. “We are already involved in a massive, unplanned planetary experiment,” he writes. “We should not begin yet another planetary experiment in the hope that it will somehow magically cancel out the effects of the one we already have.”
From what I've read in other sources, this is how most real climate scientists thing of geoengineering. Even if it were feasible, the global climate system is such a fiendishly complex beast that we stand to do more harm than good. We may well kill ourselves trying to do it.

But Levitt and Dubner don't care. Like too many writers and journalists, they clearly don't give a tinker's damn about what they're arguing. Their job isn't to be right. Their job is to, apparently, keep shovelling that horseshit. Kudos to Kolbert for calling it what it is.

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