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In Celebration of a DMCA Takedown Notice: I Link to Elizabeth Kolbert on “SuperFreakonomics”

Well, this is new. My first ever DMCA takedown notice--from HarperCollins, publisher of Levitt and Dubner's Superfreakonomics. While other publishers these days are happy to have sample chapters of their authors' works read and distributed on the internet, not so with HarperCollins.

One thing I can do in response is--tit-for-tat--to remove my praise of and link to E.M. Halliday's Understanding Thomas Jefferson: there are other better (albeit longer) Jefferson biographies published by firms that have not sent me DMCA notices: read them instead.

I urge everybody--authors and readers alike--to just say no to HarperCollins in the future.

A second thing I can do is to link to Elizabeth Kolbert's review of Superfreaknomics in the New Yorker:

“SuperFreakonomics” and climate change: Then, almost overnight, the crisis passed.... 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.

This story—call it the Parable of Horseshit—has been told many times, with varying aims. The latest iteration is offered by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in their new book, “SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance”.... Levitt and Dubner tell the horseshit story as a prelude to discussing climate change: “Just as equine activity once threatened to stomp out civilization, there is now a fear that human activity will do the same.” As usual, they say, the anxiety is unwarranted. First, the global-warming threat has been exaggerated; there is uncertainty about how, exactly, the earth will respond to rising CO2 levels, and uncertainty has “a nasty way of making us conjure up the very worst possibilities.” Second, solutions are bound to present themselves: “Technological fixes are often far simpler, and therefore cheaper, than the doomsayers could have imagined.”

Levitt and Dubner have in mind a very particular kind of “technological fix.” Wind turbines, solar cells, biofuels—these are all, in their view, more trouble than they’re worth. Such technologies are aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, which is the wrong goal, they say. Cutting back is difficult and, finally, annoying. Who really wants to use less oil? This sounds, the pair write, “like wearing sackcloth.” Wouldn’t it be simpler just to reëngineer the planet?... “Once you eliminate the moralism and the angst, the task of reversing global warming boils down to a straightforward engineering problem,” Levitt and Dubner write....

Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science—or, for that matter, in science of any kind. It’s their contention that they don’t need it. The whole conceit behind “SuperFreakonomics” and, before that, “Freakonomics,” which sold some four million copies, is that a dispassionate, statistically minded thinker can find patterns and answers in the data that those who are emotionally invested in the material will have missed.... Levitt and Dubner claim to have solved the mystery of why crime, after soaring in the nineteen-eighties, dropped in the nineteen-nineties.... They also have proved—at least to their own satisfaction—that names like Ansley and Philippa will be popular for girls in the coming decade, that reading to your kids doesn’t matter, and that drunks should be encouraged to drive rather than walk.

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....

But what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” is... [t]hough climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are.... Among the many likely consequences of shooting SO2 above the clouds would be new regional weather patterns (after major volcanic eruptions, Asia and Africa have a nasty tendency to experience drought).... There are eminent scientists—among them the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen—who argue that geoengineering should be seriously studied, but only with the understanding that it represents a risky, last-ditch attempt to avert catastrophe. “By far the preferred way” to confront climate change, Crutzen has written, “is to lower the emissions of greenhouse gases.”...

To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.