links for 2009-10-17
Steve Levitt on His Unpublished Book, Freakonomics, and Climate Change

Correspondence on Global Warming and Superfreakonomics

Steve Dubner writes:


It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm's extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value. His attack is full of deception and outright lies. He makes it sound as if we somehow twisted and abused Caldeira's research; nothing could be further from the truth. We will have to clear this up publicly, although as you suggest it will be hard to put out this fire no matter how wrongfully set. This is politics that's being played now, nothing else. Also: yes, Romm posted a PDF of the chapter on his website, which the publisher, in its routine effort to pull pirated copies of its copyrighted material off the web, asked him to take down. As far as I know, it was never on Amazon; there's been no censoring; we are talking about a book that hasn't yet been published (when it is, I assume Amazon will post the searchable pages, as is typical), but Romm has done a great job of getting people to believe that a book they haven't read is full of errors.

I reply:

Brad DeLong to Stephen

Re: "It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm's extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value..."

As I said, I can't read your chapter--by your publisher's choice.

That's very bad for you: Romm's posting your chapter and a link to it is a way for him to establish credibility--"see for yourself"; your publisher's pulling it down is a way to diminish yours.

Over this weekend, people's views are gelling--Paul Krugman's, for example--while your voice isn't being heard, and once people's views are gelled, it takes a huge amount of evidence and the right kinds of psychological pressure to ungell them.

Thus, for example, I would love to believe in Myrhvold and in cheap geoengineering solutions. But I come from Berkeley, where Richard Muller is the dominant public-intellectual voice on geoengineering, and he is very knowledgeable and very skeptical. My second cousin Tom Kalil does solar panels and so forth for a living at OSTP. The reaction of the climate people I know to Myrhvold on solar panels, whom Romm says you quote:

"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..."

is simply unprintable--that it's like claiming that curve balls curve because of photon pressure from the stadium lights.

So given what is flowing past my computer screen at the moment, it looks very much to me as though you were simply hornswoggled by Myrhvold and company, who have formed their own tight self-reinforcing intellectual community reinforcing each other's beliefs up there in Seattle. There is nothing I can see contradicting that interpretation, and a bunch of things from Romm and others confirming it.

The place where I would concentrate, if I were you, would be Stanford's Ken Caldeira. Romm claims:

"[Caldeira] 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.' One sentence about Caldeira in particular is the exact opposite of what he believes (page 184): 'Yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.' Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira, and when he saw a version from Myrhvold, he objected to it. But Levitt and Dubner apparently wanted to keep it very badly — it even makes the SuperFreakonomics Table of Contents in the Chapter Five summary “Is carbon dioxide the wrong villain?...”

If your principal experts truly do repudiate the interpretation you place on their work, that's very bad for you...