Pwnage Made Easy

By Carl Zimmer | October 30, 2009 9:30 am

I smell an anthology here: a collection of the all-time greatest take-downs, in which scientists expose lazy thinking. How about, The Best Pwnage of 2009?

My own latest nomination:

In the new book Superfreakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner make lots of provocative claims about global warming. For example, they say that solar panels would absorb so much heat they’d be useless for bringing the planet’s temperature down by cutting down carbon emissions.

Raymond Pierrehumbert, who, like Levitt, is a professor at the  University of Chicago, shows why that’s wrong–not with calculus or some other fancy-schmancy mathematics, but with some embarrassingly simple arithmetic.

Be sure to check out the map at the end. Ouch.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: General, Global Warming

Comments (10)

  1. Slap!

    I like the anthology idea. But what would it be called?

  2. Really? That’s the best you could come up with? Economist’s quoting a technologist who got some math wrong? I didn’t even need to do the math when I read the chapter to realize that it isn’t the waste heat of the energy production that is important, but the long term effect of the CO2 as a greenhouse gas. But that is such a minor point of the chapter that it is hardly worth mentioning. The reality is that the only way to reverse the effects of CO2 released in the atmosphere is to not only stop emitting more, but to take what was already added out. The question is, can we do that in a time frame that will make any difference? If not, then stop-gap geoengineering solutions must be explored and probably implemented. Alas, I don’t hold out much hope for that process either, (imagine the EPA report of an attempt to reduce the global temperature) but I find it very irksome the way Superfreakomics has been nit-picked and distorted on this issue. Well, I guess nitpicking is better than the distortions others have claimed.

    Just finished “Evolution” BTW. Looking forward to Tangled.

  3. Oded

    I just want to point out here that i love-love-love this book:

    It is a superbly pro-arithmetic book on sustainable energy, with a single strong moral: “we need an energy plan that ADDS UP”. Whenever any claim is made, he brings arithmetic to it immediately and attacks it to see if it adds up. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in sustainable energy and global warming.

  4. Certainly the balloon boy hoax would merit at least a footnote in such a book. As I watched the event unfold on TV, I pretty quickly realized that any child on board would already be dead of asphyxiation.

    Ultimately, others disputed that the size of the craft wasn’t large enough to carry a child. Wired published this rather obvious claim it should have deformed if it had a 50 lb child inside. Of course, there could have been some hidden support structure with oxygen supply, but that would have added to the overall weight considerably. I don’t believe Wired’s calculations in that article, and neither do several people posting in the comments. A local science enthusiast did his own experiment.

  5. chezjake

    A “Best Pwnage of ….” series would be a very good way of drawing high school kids into learning more science and critical thinking skills.

  6. Anne


    Be careful with the ‘without hot air’ book. It is misleading. Why do I think that? Because it grossly inflates the amount of clean electricity we need. If I remember correctly, prof. MacKay paints a picture of 125 kWh of green electricity per person per day. But he arrives at that number by introducing a moderately affluent Brit who drives a car at x km per day and then multiplies that by 60 million (as if babies drive cars too) to arrive at 3x the car km that are actually driven in Britain. And then he doesn’t account for the fact that an electric car can drive about 5x further on 1 kWh of electricity than a petrol car can on 1 kWh of petrol.

    It is all set up to make the switch to renewables look hopeless. Look what he does in a later chapter when he introduces nuclear power. The 125 kWh per day is nowhere to be seen, he has switched to 18 kWh per day, which is the current electricity consumption in Britain. And he estimates the number of new nukes on that figure. Ask yourself why he does that. All to make nuclear look like the logical option.

    The basic error prof. MacKay commits is making thermal energy and electric energy equivalent, without properly correcting for the fact that electricity can be put to use far more efficiently than the thermal energy we get from fossil fuels. Effectively he is saying “We need 3 kWh of green electricity to replace 3 kWh of coal that is used to generate 1 kWh of electricity.”

    He corrects this error in later chapters when he presents his 4 plans, and comes up with a more conservative 50 kWh per day. But I am afraid that by that time, the wrong message has already sunk in.

    I also remember a picture of a few yellow and red squares drawn on a map of Europe & North Africa. The yellow squares represent the entire European primary energy consumption. And he draws 2 squares. Why? Isn’t one square all we need? Why European energy consumption? Wasn’t the book about Britain? I think one red square, properly sized to represent 50 kWh per day instead of the inflated 125 kWh would have made a very underwhelming picture.

    Many of the calculations are not wrong per se, but the overall impression that the book gives is misleading i.m.h.o.

  7. Sorbet

    Levitt and Dubner don’t suggest geoengineering as a cure for all our evils. In fact they suggest it as a temporary experiment that could buy us time for other long-term measures. I don’t understand why this is not a sensible stance and how any of this screams “denial”. While the professor’s analysis is cogent, I think some of the global warming crowd has gone overboard in their drum-beating about the book.

  8. outeast

    @ Sorbet
    What’s bad is that they do not exhibit even the most basic levels of rigour. They set out to show how poorly people consider statistics, how badly they make cost-benerfit analyses, etc – but then fall head-over-heels for the first quick-fix solution presented to them by a persuasive enthusiast. Where is their fact-checking? Why do they not immediately subject the geoengineering ideas to the same basic credibility testing they present themselves as being experts in? Prof Pierrehumbert shows how a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation exposes major flaws; the fact that they failed to do such calculations – their supposed forte – is at the very least a warning not to assume that their work is as rigorous as they claim.

    It may be that the geoengineering thing was just a minor part of the chapter – but so what? This is a book, not a blog post, and furthermore it’s a book that is founded on the very principle that you should not take factual claims at face value, that you should use careful fact-checking and logic to test your beliefs, that you should be wary of your own cognitive biases etc etc… It should not contain claims that fail to live up to the standards the writers themselves set.

    The ‘denial’ cry is so loud because not only are the werrors there but the writers have totally failed to fess up. A ‘mea culpa’ – perhaps with a wry note about how this only serves to reinforce their case for how easy it is to let your own biases skew your judgement – would redeem them. Fingers in ears and ‘nyaa nyaa nyaa’ is… well, it’s denial. Denial of their own errors, at the very least.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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