SuperFreakonomics: Laughing All the Way to the Bank

By Chris Mooney | October 20, 2009 4:47 pm

The critiques of the new Levitt & Dubner work keep rolling in; in particular, over at Bloomberg, journalist Eric Pooley eviscerates the book:

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner are so good at tweaking conventional wisdom that their first book, “Freakonomics,” sold 4 million copies. So when Dubner, an old friend, told me their new book would take on climate change, I was rooting for a breakthrough idea.

No such luck. In “SuperFreakonomics,” their brave new climate thinking turns out to be the same pile of misinformation the skeptic crowd has been peddling for years.

“Obviously, provocation is not last on the list of things we’re trying to do,” Dubner told me the other day. This time, the urge to provoke has driven him and Levitt off the rails and into a contrarian ditch.

You can read Pooley’s full takedown here; it’s devastating, of course. But here’s the thing. I just checked, and SuperFreakonomics is currently ranked # 8 on Amazon. That’s pretty much guaranteed bestseller status. I certainly don’t know how long of a run the book will have; sequels rarely do as well as the original. But you can bet that Levitt & Dubner are going to be making plenty more money off the Freakonomics franchise with this item, whether it’s accurate or otherwise.

While we wring our hands about the egregious claims in the new book, then, it seems to me that it would be wise to ponder a much deeper question than whether the book is accurate: Why is contrarianism about climate change (and other topics) so journalistically seductive, and so financially rewarding? And is there anything that can be done to change that?

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Comments (24)

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  1. News From Around The Blogosphere 10.20.09 « Skepacabra | October 21, 2009
  1. Chris, I am tempted to say that we should pull a Michael Moore, show up at one of their events and stage a citizen’s arrest for attempted murder.

    There is a long standing distrust of authority in the American psyche. I remember that growing up in the Midwest, being called and Eastern Intellectual was a way to say that you may have book larnin’ but no common sense. So, the outsider attack on authority always gets attention.

    For some of these issues, like climate change, divining the right answer requires some real intellectual work and many of us are too lazy to do that. It is much easier to just accept simplistic solutions as long as they allow us to keep our personal world view.

    I would bet that John Stossel will eat this up on 20/20 tonight, unless he wants to play the contrarian to a pair of contrarians.

    As to what to do? There is not much other than continuing to tell the truth to as many people as you can get to listen as often as you can.

  2. Fine point. This may be the best test yet of whether skepticism should be refuted or ignored. The attacks on the lazy, flawed science and reporting in the book are fully justified. The question is, are the attacks drawing more attention to the book and bumping up sales?

  3. Sorbet

    One of the things that’s forgotten about the climate change problem is that it’s so enormously complex that we are going to need every idea that anyone can come up, even hare-brained ones. As the late Linus Pauling used to say, “To have a good idea, first come up with many ideas, then throw the bad ones away”.

  4. Fascinating. Levitt and Dubner say that global warming is perhaps the most pressing problem facing the world today and it is essential that we do something about it as soon as possible, and yet they are still painted with the brush of “Global Warming Denialist”. As Sorbet says above, we need some brainstorming here, without fear of getting your head chopped off by either side. Can’t we all just chill (heh) a bit here and not jump all over each other because we think the other made a mistake? L and D just examined possible solutions in a different light than others might have. They may be wrong, but do we have to have the level of attack we see these days? Of all people, Chris, I would have thought you would be more sensitive to this type of thing, given the recent huge attacks between you and the New Atheists. You are both on the same side and are just arguing over strategy.

  5. Jon

    Why is contrarianism about climate change (and other topics) so journalistically seductive, and so financially rewarding? And is there anything that can be done to change that?

    If you haven’t been following Krugman’s blog he (and others) have been discussing this. The reasons Krugman gives are:

    1. “Shocking the bourgeoisie” gets attention, and is really cool!

    2. For certain reasons that are still somewhat mysterious, shocking the liberal bourgeoisie is amusing, but shocking conservatives is a faux pas (in Washington, anyway, but apparently in certain television studios in New York, this doesn’t apply. BTW, I think Krugman’s explanation doesn’t cover the subject, and he admits as much.)

    I would add a third item to his list:

    3. Ideas matter. Informed, well expressed ideas eventually make it into the discourse and help shape what is taken seriously and what isn’t, who has the prestige and who doesn’t. Some degree of organization matters as well (although you definitely don’t want to reproduce the right’s mistakes in this department).

  6. Paul Farrar

    They may make a lot of money, but it has already cost them something they, as academics, value highly: their professional reputation.

  7. Sorbet

    I completely agree with Brian. If someone is being willfully dishonest it is fair to criticize them, but any issue that is held in common consensus and vigorously argued always is in the danger of turning into a religion. Climate change is a serious problem (and outright deniers should be denounced for what they are), but it’s not like no criticism of climate models is valid at all. Just like discussions on race (where the issue is so extremely polarized and sensitive that nobody dares to ask even reasonable scientific questions about it), we should not let the status quo elicit such an extreme reaction so as to make people just shut up about their objections.

  8. Bookselling is all niche marketing. It takes a lot fewer book sales to be a best seller than movie ticket sales or TV ratings. And there is unquestionably a contrarian niche market. Not only are there enough contrarians who buy books looking for supposed hidden truths and unconventional wisdom, but such nuggets are great PR fodder, news hooks, talk show debate points and so on. Nice work if you can get it, but in many ways, just as blindly ideological as the liberalism and conservatism contrarians scoff at.

  9. Erasmussimo

    I agree that there’s nothing wrong in principle with raising questions about climate change issues. The problem is that there is no serious policy debate going on at this time. The controversy we see is a silly controversy between scientifically literate people and scientific illiterates with a political agenda. I have not read the book in question, so I have nothing to say about it. Here are some issues that deserve serious discussion:

    1. How much do we owe to future generations? Specifically, how much sacrifice should we make today to save them from even greater sacrifice in the future? And how far ahead should we plan?

    2. Should climate change policy be driven by “most probable outcome” scenarios or “worst case” scenarios?

    3. How do we create a mechanism for compensating those who suffer greater damages from climate change? For example, the country of Maldive Islands will likely be obliterated by rising sea levels. Should countries that contributed most to climate change be held financially responsible for the costs of relocating the people of the Maldives? How should damage be measured? What is the obliteration of an entire country worth?

    These are just a few of the issues that we should be discussing now. Instead, we’re wasting time refuting the ignorant claims of deniers.

  10. Gadfly

    Why are you guys skeptical about everything except climate change? Recent reports prove the planet has actually been in a cooling trend for the past 11 years. How long does it have to cool before you get that it’s a natural cycle?
    I will try to keep this synopsis brief…
    Patrick J Michaels is a senior fellow in environmental studies from the Cato Institute. He wrote an article a few weeks ago wherein he details efforts to obtain the original data that all global warming trends are based upon. In the early ’80s the US Dept of Energy and scientists at the UK’s Univ of East Anglia est. the Climate Research Unit to produce the world’s first comprehensive history of surface temps. The report is known as the “Jones and Wigley” records for its authors. It served as the primary reference standard for UN Intergovernmenta Panel on Climate Change and prompted the original claims regarding “discernible human influence on global climate”. Stations from all over the world were monitored to develop the results which showed a warming of 0.6 +/- 0.2 C in the 20th century.
    Here’s the fun part. Warwick Hughes, an Australian scientist, wondered where the “+/-” came from so he wrote Jones in early 2005 asking for the original data. Jones’ response to a fellow scientist attempting to replicate his work was “We have 25 years or so invested in this work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try to find something wrong with it?”
    Reread that statement — that is the most supreme violation of scientific protocol I can imagine. The point of the scientific method is to have a theory stand up to any challenge.
    In 2009 Stephen McIntyre filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the data. Despite having been invited by the National Academy of Sciences to present his analyses of global temperatures he was refused becauase he wasn’t an “academic”.
    Faced with a growing number of requests Jones continued to refuse to release the data.
    Jones finally released a statement stating that “since the 1980’s we have merged the data we have received into existing series or begun new ones so it is impossible to say if all stations within a particular country or if all of an individual record should be freely available.”
    Say what? You admit you corrupted the original data? ON PURPOSE? If we are to believe Jones own admission then the original data that could have confirmed global warming has actually been corrupted and destroyed decades ago.
    So, science oriented clear thinking folks — still feel totally, one-hundred percent convinced of the validity of something that cannot in any way be verified?
    If so — you’re a kool-ade drinker.

  11. Erasmussimo

    Gadfly, you are not correct in stating that the earth has been cooling for the last eleven years. In fact, there was a peak in 1998, and temperatures have been roughly stable since then — stable at record high levels. By any number of measures, the temperatures over the last eleven years have been higher than temperatures over the last 50 years. The key idea that you’re missing is that climate is a long-term phenomenon. Eleven years don’t mean much when it comes to climate. You need a change stretching over at least 30 years. And in fact, if you look at the last 30 years, the overall trend is strongly upwards.

    As to your claim that a scientist refused to share data, I am highly dubious. I’d like to see some more details, especially some sort of reference to support your claim. The reason for this is that supplying data is so central to the scientific process that refusal to share it is usually considered almost unethical. Yes, there are plenty of good reasons to share data. The most common reason is that the data is a huge pile of disparate information, not some nice neat table of numbers. This is especially true when you compile huge amounts of data from many different sources. No two sources ever produce the data in the same format. Normally what happens is that the owner of the data is happy to provide the dataset generated from the original data. But the original data is itself just too difficult to provide. For example, I worked on a research project in the 1970s and my dataset was kept on punched cards. Sometime in the 1980s somebody offered to read my punched cards and send me the data in a modern machine-readable format. I happily complied. I never heard from the guy again. The punched cards are gone forever. I have only an old printout of the data. I was a fool to let the original data out of my hands. The scientist you cite seems to be wiser than I was.

    “In 2009 Stephen McIntyre filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the data. Despite having been invited by the National Academy of Sciences to present his analyses of global temperatures he was refused becauase he wasn’t an “academic”.”

    Again, you need to provide some details in order for this to be credible. There are plenty of scientific institutions that will not grant access to materials unless you can provide credentials. Just walk into any big research museum and ask to see some ancient manuscript or artifact in their archives — they’ll turn you down flat.

    “Say what? You admit you corrupted the original data? ON PURPOSE? If we are to believe Jones own admission then the original data that could have confirmed global warming has actually been corrupted and destroyed decades ago.”

    No, you don’t understand how science is done in the real world. When you gather data from a large number of disparate sources, you have to deal with lots of stupid little problems. The data from Station X consists of a bunch of handwritten papers, and 8 out of 110 pages are water-damaged and you’re not sure whether some digits were 8’s or 0’s. The data from Station Y was recorded on a strip-chart recorder whose ink ran dry on several occasions but you think you can see the scratch marks from the pen. Station Z has a problem: at one point the data suddenly jumps upward by exactly 2 degrees. It’s obviously some sort of instrumental error, or perhaps the person reading the thermometer misread the scale. So you just subtracted 2 degrees from the reported values during that interval.

    These kind of things are standard operating procedure in science. I once participated in an astronomy research gig for NASA and I had to make a correction to the data for a well-known factor. I asked the principal investigator how he wanted me to make the correction. He replied, “Oh, just use 3.4 for the coefficient.” I asked him where that number came from. He smiled and said, “It’s what has worked best for these conditions in the past.”

    Science is not easy. It’s not some simple-minded step-by-step process you can get out of a book. In the real world, there are all sorts of fudges, adjustments, corrections, and modifications you make. You don’t make these alterations at a whim — you make them based on vast amounts of experience. There’s plenty of room to fudge data if you want. All this requires a lot of scientific integrity. It’s easy for some ignorant outsider to go through your data and pounce on some of those corrections and call you a liar.

    For example, let’s consider that correction factor of 3.4 that my PI gave me. Suppose that you’re a skeptic and you demand to see a mathematical justification for that number. My PI couldn’t provide it; it’s based on years of research he’s done, during which he has learned that 3.4 works best. There are maybe 5 or 6 other scientists in the whole world with enough expertise to know whether 3.4 is a good number. It’s almost a certainty that my PI has discussed this problem with them at conferences and they’ve agreed on that number as the best approximation. Then you come along and scream “Conspiracy!” Look, if you want to devote your life to the problem and develop the same experience that they have, then you can decide for yourself. But in the real world, the data is so complicated that an outsider simply can’t evaluate it without years of experience.

  12. Visit realclimate.org for some details on the “Cato Institute”:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/10/climate-cover-up-a-brief-review/
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/03/with-all-due-respect/
    After their support of tobacco companies, Cato’s street cred is essentially nil.

  13. magistramorous

    Different journalism standards for science reporting? Perhaps science should not be reported in the one-side-vs.-the-other format. I’m divided on this, though: on the one hand, it would present a clearer picture of the truth, but, on the other hand, it would also make science even less interesting to people than it already is.

  14. Why is contrarianism about climate change (and other topics) so journalistically seductive, and so financially rewarding?

    Contrarianism about vaccination is also very journalistically seductive, these days.

    In fact, contrarianism about whatever appears to be against “scientific establishment” is always journalistically seductive and can even be financially rewarding.

    Must have something to do with, oh, how should we call it, scientific illiteracy?… :-)

    And is there anything that can be done to change that?

    Ten centuries of work done, a few to go… :-)

  15. Man bites dog.

    And anyway, as realclimate.org has painstakingly shown, the real problem with the book is not ‘contrarianism’ — it’s that the factual underpinnings of its ‘contrary argument’ are easily proven to be wrong. GIGO.

  16. Why is contrarianism about climate change (and other topics) so journalistically seductive, and so financially rewarding? And is there anything that can be done to change that?

    I ask myself the same question about the anti-vaccine movement all the time. And, make no mistake, the AGW denialist movement is a lot like the anti-vaccine movement. Of course, one aspect is that the anti-vaccine movement is the basis of a lot of lucrative autism quackery, in which the quackery purports to treat “vaccine injury” in order to “cure” autism.

  17. Arrow

    Don’t bother disputing with Erasmussimo he is clearly either “scientifically illiterate with a political agenda” to use his own words or even worse he is a fraud. Just read his own statement:

    Erasmussimo: “Station Z has a problem: at one point the data suddenly jumps upward by exactly 2 degrees. It’s obviously some sort of instrumental error, or perhaps the person reading the thermometer misread the scale. So you just subtracted 2 degrees from the reported values during that interval. These kind of things are standard operating procedure in science. I once participated in an astronomy research gig for NASA and I had to make a correction to the data for a well-known factor. I asked the principal investigator how he wanted me to make the correction. He replied, “Oh, just use 3.4 for the coefficient.” I asked him where that number came from. He smiled and said, “It’s what has worked best for these conditions in the past.”

    What he has described here is a *perfect* example of a scientific misconduct. That he thinks one can just arbitrarily modify data in order to make them better reflect ones own idea of reality and then report such data as valid is a conclusive proof that he is either lying and is in fact scientifically illiterate or even worse he is telling the truth and he sees nothing wrong in perpetrating scientific fraud.

    Errasmusimo if you are really a scientists it is your scientific DUTY to report every case of tampering with the data. If you don’t do it you are a fraud and a disgrace to scientific community.

  18. Erasmussimo

    OK, Arrow, since you’re such a great scientist, let me present you with a real-world situation: something that actually happened, and what we did about it, and what you would have done. I’ll be deliberately vague about some details because I don’t want to reveal my identity or those of my colleagues.

    We were in the field with a huge set of instruments — this operation was a very expensive one. We were taking data on a large number of variables. We were using special cameras to record the visual information, which would later be reduced to form a crucial data curve. This curve is known to be bell-shaped, and the most critical number for us to calculate is the exact time of the peak of the curve. However, during data collection, there were some problems that resulted in only partial data for a period of about five minutes. When we later plotted the data, we saw a steep dip in the bell curve a short while before the peak; this dip was due to the problems we experienced.

    Now, the formal way of calculating the peak is to include all the data, include the dip; this would have pushed the peak back about 5 minutes. However, when we ran the same calculation excluding the dip data, we got a peak that was a much better fit to the overall curve. Therefore, we reported the result based on the exclusion of the dip.

    What would you have done?

  19. Erasmussimo

    Oh, and by the way, we did not have the option to return to the field and retake the data. There were several reasons for this, but the most important one was the very high cost of the operation.

  20. Arrow

    You can interpret the data anyway you want as long as you explain what you did and provide data as they were collected. You cannot however arbitrarily modify the data and pretend that problems never happened – this is an obvious case of misconduct.

  21. Erasmussimo

    Well, it looks as if, by your strict standards, an entire NASA mission to collect data was ruined by the misconduct of its leading investigator. I would give you the name of the perpetrator so that you could denounce him to the whole world, but the fact is, your objections are ridiculous. Real science is nowhere near as simple-minded as you seem to think.

  22. Sorbet

    I won’t call it misconduct but it’s definitely not a good idea to leave out some data points (“the dip”) when fitting a curve. One can usually run statistical tests to find out what function would fit the curve the best.

  23. Brian Dodge

    Is it scientific misconduct that is causing the summer arctic ice to decline?
    Was it misconduct for economists to create Credit Default Swaps, advise their clients at AIG that they were safe investments and could be used to make a pile of money, and help crash the world economy?
    Is it scientific misconduct that is causing glaciers worldwide to decline in volume, threatening the lives of billions who depend on them for water?
    Was it misconduct for economists to advise the banks they worked for to issue loans that couldn’t be repayed but were enormously profitable, loans whose real cost all us taxpayers got stuck with by the bank bailout?
    Has scientific misconduct caused the Larsen A, Larsen B, and Wilkins ice shelves to collapse for the firs time in 6000 years?
    Is it misconduct for economists to say that geoengineering would be cheaper than reducing CO2 emissions, when they are completely clueless as to what the cost of global warming from those CO2 emissions will be?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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