Raymond T. Pierrehumbert's Letter to Steven Levitt

By Chris Mooney | October 30, 2009 9:29 am

This is devastating. RealClimate’s Raypierre shows just how uninformed the Freakonomics guys are on climate change and the viability of solar energy, just how easily they could have informed themselves, and ends with a map of the University of Chicago campus, showing that Levitt only needed to walk .5 miles to talk with Raypierre and get some actually reliable information.

Read the whole thing.


Comments (15)

  1. Right – university professors can’t even talk to each other across disciplines on the same campus, but it’s not scientists communicating that’s the problem – its K-12 education. UGH!

    And now the trolls will no doubt emerge . . . .

  2. Anthony McCarthy

    This is excellent.

    Note in the comments that Levitt was on Diane Rehm’s show spreading more misinformation about ocean acidification. The biggest problem with pro-pollution shills is that the media presents them, generally without any effective refutation. Worse is when they set up a phony balance. Lies are simple to tell, the truth is often more complicated. Raypierre wouldn’t have gotten to make his argument on just about any TV station and on few radio stations anywhere in the United States.

  3. Erasmussimo

    “Devastating” is the perfect word to describe Mr. Pierrehumbert’s critique of Mr. Levitt. I especially appreciated the light tone he employed. No bombast, no sturm und drang, just a straightforward presentation of the logic in a style expressing good will. Perhaps commentators on blogs such as this can learn that a clear, courteous, non-hyperbolic style can be more devastating than bombast. I know it’s hard to pull off when dealing with some people — I myself seldom live up to that ideal, despite my efforts.

  4. Gaythia

    Yes, absolutely, the authors of Superfreakonomics should have learned some science before writing their second book. And done their math homework. In a reasonable world, the media would focus on science reporting by interviewing actual scientists. In the meantime the authors deserve to be put on the defensive and have their professionalism called into question.

    Maybe I’m overly optimistic but I believe that the controversy over Superfreakonomics is actually helping public perceptions of the global warming issue. The media conversation is moving one baby step forward, from global warming deniers vs global warming advocates to one where global warming is getting more accepted and the public debate is refocusing to whether or not simplistic solutions will work or whether real effort will be required.

    The big question is how to effectively push to get authentic global warming science as presented by RealScience and other informed venues into the public arena in a much more direct and expeditious fashion. How can the media learn to break free of its present both sides of the controversy model for reporting and instead, search for authentic analysis?

  5. Except that Myhrvold’s main argument was about the energy required to *make* the solar panels, not the radiated heat. The critique totally misses the point. See


  6. Erasmussimo

    Mr. Levitt, I read Mr. Myhrvold’s essay and its analysis is not as cogent as Mr. Pierrehumbert’s. Mr. Myhrvold makes two points: one is the albedo factor discussed by Mr. Pierrehumbert; the second is the manufacturing cost you refer to. Mr. Myhrvold’s calculation shows that the manufacturing cost in CO2 for the solar plant is about 2.75 times that of a coal plant of the same size operating for one year. In other words, the solar plant must operate for 2.75 years before it begins generating a “CO2 profit”. In economics terms, this is similar to the payback time for an investment. I’m sure that you’ll agree that a payback time of 2.75 years, corresponding to an annual ROI of about 30%, is exceptionally high.

    Hence Mr. Pierrehumbert’s arguement does indeed address one of Mr. Myhrvold’s points, and the second point, while significant, does not constitute a serious objection to solar photoelectric plants. In my opinion, you remain the devastatee.

  7. Again with the attacks on Superfreakonomics? I didn’t even need to do the math to see the flaw in the chapter regarding the waste heat versus the generated energy. The waste heat is, of course, more than the generated energy. But the important part of fossil fuel is that the CO2 emissions go on trapping heat. A minor flaw in an argument that is quoted by L and D, not their own at all. And now we see from the rebuttal by Mr. Myhrvold that the point was less clear and more valid than it appeared in the chapter.

    Superfreakonomics does not say that there is global cooling (as AP claimed it did), it does not deny GW or it’s importance or the need to reverse it. Reducing CO2 emissions to *zero today* would not reverse GW, it would only stop it from getting worse, and that only if deforestation were also stopped. Since we are not going to get those two things today, GW is going to get worse for some time to come. Superfreakonomics also does not suggest that we not do those things, it merely says that we may need to take additional steps to buy some more time before irreparable damage is done.

    You guys sound like accountants arguing over whether to sell bonds or get a bridge loan while the company CEO is still running the business into the ground.

  8. JEM

    @6 definitely still the devastatee.

    Slightly off topic, but as to the question in previous threads re. why we lose ground in the climate change battle – I would venture to say that it’s human nature to assume we know something about climate and energy as an extension of our everyday experience with weather, electric sockets and gasoline. It’s very hard for humans to not extrapolate their individual experience into larger worldviews just as we find it hard not look for cause and effect where none exists (why did my friend get cancer – it must be the power lines). Of course economists are no exception, and dare I suggest with no evidence that it seems they may be more vulnerable than most when as they look for macro effects resulting from individual choices of which they have very little knowledge.

  9. Gaythia

    I am delighted to see the response from Steve Levitt. Is there the opportunity for a real dialogue here? Was I too harsh in my assessment of the authors above?

    I certainly think that there is a place for real economic analysis in global warming. But we need to be able to think long term as Erasmussimo points out in his post.

    As a personal example, I have found that fluorescent lightbulbs, at least the inexpensive ones I have purchased, have an extremely short life. This leads me to believe that they are quite probably not an environmentally effective purchase. This is especially true when the cost and nuisance factor of correctly disposing of the mercury containing burned out bulbs is factored in. LED bulbs are moving into the range of affordability. If I were thinking long term, perhaps I should be purchasing them now. In many homes and businesses simply orienting windows with regard to solar gain would help quite a bit with both lighting and heat considerations.

    It is true that we need small steps that the public easily can grasp as accessible as well as large policy changes that will be more difficult to attain.

  10. Mr. Levitt,

    As with much of what you are saying and writing at this time (especially, but not solely, related to climate science and climate economics’ issues), there is truth and truthiness here.

    1. Truth: The primary discussion in Superfreakonomics of Myhrvold re solar power (187-188) is on the lag time of catching up with the embedded carbon footprint of solar due to construction buildup/payback times. This is truthiness, however, since it is not compared to plans for coal, what implications would be if coal were shut down due to solar developments, and doesn’t address same issue when it comes to nuclear power / etc …

    2. More importantly, you are being disingenuous (crazy like a fox?) since the opening paragraph to “too optimistic” (p 187), leading into that discussion of the embedded carbon, reads:

    “A lot of the things that people say would be a good thing probably aren’t,” Myhrvold 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 percent gets turned into electricity and the rest is reradiate as heat — which contributes to global warming.”

    Hmmm … this is the point that Pierrehumbert addresses. You seem to be refusing to engage Pierrehumbert’s devastating critique of that one paragraph by holding up a bright shiny object and saying “what about that other thing?”

    Why not deal with the critique at hand rather than trying to move on to that next thing?

  11. Brian Utterback:

    I had a post here with links for everything I said, but it got eaten by moderation. I’ll re-post it below; I’d be happy to provide links if they’d go through.

    First, Levitt and Dubner doclaim the Earth is cooling, explicitly, in their book (middle of page 186). It’s actually both explicit and conspiratorial, with the exact quote being “Then there’s this little-discussed fact about global warming: while the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased” (emphasis in original).

    When confronted about this (see Seth Borenstein’s AP article), Levitt replied that he had “eyeballed” the data (!! Remember, this is a trained economics professor!) and that he had only written that line “ironically”. He is also quoted as saying he doesn’t believe it’s cooling, which is precisely the opposite from what his book claims (and the book has no indications that he’s speaking ironically).

    Levitt and Dubner then went on to write a USA Today op-ed comparing their critics and any scientist who disagrees with them to “flat-earthers”. This piece itself also came under criticism (for instance, see the trackback above this comment and go back two posts) – one critical piece claims that their op-ed averages one error every 42 words.

    Consistently, when being faced with accusations about their book, Levitt and Dubner have thrown smokebombs – Levitt’s own comment here (#5) is a characteristic example: He doesn’t address Ray Pierrehumbert’s open letter at all and instead offers a defense of a single point unrelated to the critique. (He did precisely the same thing in response to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ initial volley – linking to them (but without using their name; he only called them a “well-known environmental advocacy group”) but then spending the rest of his post to say “we’re not deniers”, when none of the critiques from the UCS were based on denial (all were based on factual mistakes or misrepresentations).

    Another recent example is how Dubner claims that ocean acidification is addressed in Superfreakonomics. It is mentioned once, in a sentence that implies it’s a term Ken Caldeira just recently coined and thus could mean anything (exact quote: “[Caldeira] and a co-author coined the phrase ‘ocean acidification.’ the process by which the seas absorb so much carbon dioxide that corals and other shallow-water organisms are threatened.”). They don’t go into any further detail, nor do they mention that their proposed scheme will do nothing about it. Levitt also has recently claimed (on the Diane Rehm Show) that all they need to do to handle ocean acidification is, quote, “pour a bunch of base into it”, a solution not advocated for by anyone who understands the scale of the oceans or even elementary chemistry or thermodynamics.

    Levitt and Dubner do not address any of these critiques, and instead attempt to mislead with the occasional red herring or insult. And yet, they are being taken seriously. That is the danger present here.

    I will back off of Levitt and Dubner when they come clean about their mistakes. I can only hope this occurs when (if?) Levitt replies to Pierrehumbert’s open letter, but I suspect it will not.

  12. Oh, I also forgot to mention: The Royal Society put out a report not long ago addressing the issue of ocean acidification. It fairly definitively puts the smack down on Levitt’s proposed “pour a bunch of base into it” idea.

    The reason I mention this? A primary author, whose research is cited throughout the report (including the segment that shows how Levitt’s idea is a pile of bollocks), is none other than Ken Caldeira, the researcher Levitt cites (and mis-represents) throughout the book.

    They had one of the world’s foremost experts on ocean acidification interviewed for the book. And yet, Superfreakonomics says nothing about how their proposed solution doesn’t handle ocean acidification.

    I would be happy to submit references for this and my above claim, if the links can make it through moderation.

  13. LCarey

    Despite Levitt’s desire expressed above to change the subject from what the text of Chapter 5 of the book actually says (quoted above by A. Siegel), it’s very instructive to read Prof. Pierrehumbert’s response, since it demonstrates so well how to apply the type of general critical (I dare say skeptical) thought process that one should consistently bring to bear on many aspects of the climate change debate. As Pierrehumbert notes, the problem is not that Levitt and Dubner failed to talk to enough experts, but rather that on this topic (unlike many other topics on the book) they appear to have simply switched off their critical thinking skills and let their personal ideology do the composing, without reflecting on whether what they were saying actually made any sense (however nice it may have sounded to them).

    The money quote from Pierrehumbert: “The point here is that really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you that the claim that the blackness of solar cells makes solar energy pointless is complete and utter nonsense. I don’t think you would have accepted such laziness and sloppiness in a term paper from one of your students, so why do you accept it from yourself? What does the failure to do such basic thinking with numbers say about the extent to which anything you write can be trusted? How do you think it reflects on the profession of economics when a member of that profession — somebody who that profession seems to esteem highly — publicly and noisily shows that he cannot be bothered to do simple arithmetic and elementary background reading. Not even for a subject of such paramount importance as global warming.”

  14. Dark tent

    Levitt is simply trying (desperately) to change the subject when he says “Except that Myhrvold’s main argument was about the energy required to *make* the solar panels, not the radiated heat. The critique totally misses the point”.

    The FACT is that Levitt and his co-author included stuff in their book that is false, misleading and just idiotic and are now trying to divert attention with claims that those who are taking them to task on specific scientific points are “missing the point” (or worse: are “Flat Earthers”).

    I’d have to say at this point that if Levitt wants to salvage his reputation, he’d best start admitting where he went wrong.

    It’s bad enough that he made such elementary mistakes of math and logic (demonstrated by Pierrehumbert), but the fact that he is now acting as if they are irrelevant to the arguments in his book is simply ridiculous.

    Every time Levitt opens his mouth (eg, about addressing ocean acidification) he simply makes aan even bigger fool of himself than he already has.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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.


See More

Collapse bottom bar