SuperFreaks: Smart, arrogant, ill-informed

Mon, 2009-11-02 15:52Richard Littlemore
Richard Littlemore's picture

SuperFreaks: Smart, arrogant, ill-informed

At the risk of piling on, we’d like to add our voice to those who are disappointed by the clumsy unprofessionalism of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s new book, SuperFreakonomics - at least in regard to its handling of climate change.

Assuming that Levitt and Dubner’s foray into disinformation was accidental rather than intentional, I would speculate that there are two reasons why the authors bungled this section. First, they made a popular assumption that because someone is smart about one thing, they are smart about everything. Second, they were happy to get their information from people who were basing their opinions more on their world view than on the careful calculations of actual science.

If you are interested in the specific factual weaknesses in SuperFreakonomics, you can get a long version from Joe Romm at RealProgress or a shorter, but equally devastating dissection from Tim Lambert at Deltoid. (I especially like the clarity of Tim’s headline: “Why Everything in SuperFreakonomics about Global Warming is Wrong.”)

For the defensive, but ultimately unconvincing response from Dubner, you can check out the SuperFreakonomics blog on the New York Times site.

But let’s look at the smart guys. Levitt and Dubner went for their climate change lesson to Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft software architect about whom Bill Gates us reported to have said, “I don’t know anyone I would say is smarter than Nathan.” Pretty impressive.

Myhrvold’s mentor is the “spectacularly talkative astrophysicist” Lowell Wood, of whom Levitt and Dubner report: “Myhrvold thinks Wood is one of the smartest men in the universe.” Fabulous.

L&D continue, “Off the top of his head, Wood seems to know quite a bit about practically anything: the melt rate of Greenland’s ice core (80 cubic kilometers per year); the percentage of unsanctioned Chinese power plants that went online in the previous year (about 20 per cent); the number of times metastatic cancer cells travel through the bloodstream before they land (“as many as a million”).”

Here we start running into the real trouble. First, just because someone is good at Trivial Pursuit doesn’t mean they’ll be a reliable scientist, especially if they presume to work in fields outside their area of expertise. Second, having a confident grasp of interesting bits of science is so much more impressive when what you are saying is actually correct.

I don’t know much about metastatic cancer or unlicensed Chinese power plants, but according to the latest paper in Geophysical Research Letters, the melt rate of ice in Greenland’s core has risen from 137 cubic kilometres in 2002-2003 to 286 cubic kilometres - per year - in 2007-2009. Wood is either no longer good with numbers (he’s 65; it happens to us all), or he’s a decade or more out of date. Either way, he’s just not that credible.

This, however, doesn’t stop him from offering enthusiastic answers to a bunch of other questions on which his knowledge seems, at best, shaky and, at worst, agenda-driven to the point of dishonesty. For example, when condemning the entire community of climate modellers, he says that they dishonestly manipulate their results in order to increase their chances to get research funding. (“Everybody turns their knobs” - that is, adjusts the control parameters and coefficients of their models - “so they aren’t the outlier, becuase the outlying model is going to have difficulty getting funded.”) If he has evidence of this, he should report it. If not, he should apologize.

This is a favourite denier talking point, as are some of Wood’s other bromides like the alleged scientific failure to take water vapour into account. It’s the kind of blather that superannuated old contrarians (stand up Feeman Dyson) spout in order to entertain themselves at dinner - in which context this could all be interesting and fun. But Levitt and Dubner, without working quite hard enough to check the facts, offer it all up as worthy material on which to rest international policy. Not.

For anyone interested in reading more about Wood and his longstanding enthusiasm for geoengineering, there is a great Rolling Stone piece by Jeff Goodell (I presume the same Jeff Goodell who wrote the excellent book, Big Coal). It turns out that Wood is a proud Cold Warrior, one of the “brains” behind Rongal Reagan’s failed - but so interesting - Star Wars plan. It turns out that Wood has been wanting to loft dangerous things into the stratosphere for a long time.

For anyone interested in reading more about climate change, there are many credible sources - scientists who actuall study in the field or, perhaps even better, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body whose Nobel prize winning work is also sometimes out of date, but never quite so dramatically as Lowell Wood’s.

As for the Freakonomics guys, I loved their first book and I suspect, now that I have finished with the flawed fifth chapter of this one that I will enjoy the rest. Unfortunately, given the casual sloppiness of Chapter 5, I just won’t be able to take much of it very seriously.

Previous Comments

I read Freakonomics at the suggestion of my son, and found it interesting, if somewhat repetitive and a bit less revolutionary than its press would have us think. But that’s marketing, right?

I have had a similar experience with another author whose work I loved, and grabbed his latest off the shelf no matter what the subject. That is, until he wrote a biography of an artist, something about which I know rather a lot. He made a very basic, simple technical blunder – and it threw the rest of his work into doubt. As with Superfreakenomics and AGW, I was left wondering how much I should credit his non-fiction work in areas where I had less expertise? It is very easy to be seduced by someone whose spins a good story. Less easy to step back and sort out the facts. Generalists can’t help but get it wrong now & then.


Comment #26 of this post at Deltoid links to some blogposts critiquing the economics in Freakonomics; the same blog has another post in October 2009 but i don’t see a way to link to a specific post.

I’ve been tracking all of the hubbub about the book since before it came out, including defenses and criticisms of all sorts (there’s a bit on their prostitution claim, for instance). It’s available at

If you check it out, there might be more worth linking to from there. (Mike Kaulbars at Greenfyre’s has been doing a great job overviewing the issue, although he’s still a blogger; you’ll also find criticisms from The Economist, the Boston Globe, TIME, and a little-known journal called Nature.) Glad to see DeSmog’s weighing in.

(Oh, I also did a review of Climate Cover-Up, in the post immediately prior to the list of Superfreakonomics complaints. This may be the wrong thread to mention that, but since I’m here…)

Thanks for the link Brian.

~ dubli

I don’t see why you guys are attacking the authors of Superfreakanomics because they say the believe in global warming. Heaven forbid they actually approach the solution from a new perspective. It is pretty apparent the authors of this website will only support cap and trade.

Shooshmon, please re-read the post, or any of the hojillion criticisms I have linked to on my blog ( You will not find “they are deniers!” on any of them (indeed, the closest you will find is Levitt and Dubner insisting that they are not deniers - defending against a criticism that does not apply).

What you will find includes:
-Misrepresentation of their primary source on climate science (and ignoring his primary field of research, ocean acidification; they imply that Caldeira made up the term and ignore that their geoengineering scheme will not solve ocean pH.),
-Making claims about energy transfer and solar cells that grade-school arithmetic shows are incorrect (see the Ray Pierrehumbert open letter)
-Claiming the globe is cooling (Levitt, a trained Chicago-school economist, has since claimed he wrote that line “ironically” and that he based it off of “eyeballing” the data; to use the technical term, that excuse is weaksauce)
-Shoddy economics, including hypocrisy (for instance, the entire point of Freakonomics was that with the right economic incentives, behaviour changes, but the whole point of the climate chapter in Superfreakonomics is that no amount of incentive can lead to behaviour change where carbon is concerned) and a preference for eye-catching statistics over accurate ones
-A refusal to engage criticisms of their book honestly and openly (for instance, they routinely dismiss one list of criticisms as from a “well-known environmental advocacy group”, suggesting to casual readers that its Greenpeace or the Sierra Club or similar, while actually looking at who those criticisms came from reveals its the *Union Of Concerned Scientists*, a scientific integrity organization), instead preferring to defend against nonexistent “denier” claims and calling their opponents names.

(This is on top of other concerns about their conduct related to the book. For instance, Levitt suggested on the Diane Rehm Show that ocean acidification was no big deal, because we can, quote, “pour a bunch of base into it”. This childish notion was definitively debunked by a Royal Society report a while ago, showing you would need about 20 gigatons of limestone annually to pull this off, plus more as CO2 emissions rose. A key author of that report, whose research is cited throughout the critical section, is Ken Caldeira, who the SuperFreaks interviewed for the book but misrepresented.)

These are substantive critiques of their understanding of science, knowledge of geoengineering, journalistic integrity, and general honor. Instead, the SuperFreaks throw smokebombs.

It is common for deniers to forward several mutually contradictory theories in the same breath and see nothing wrong with it. That doesn’t mean that their opponents must do the same. And geoengineering is hardly a new perspective.

Critical reviews of this book are available all over the internet, has anybody said anything good about it yet?

There are a handful of defenses of the book that I have linked (see my reply below). A few are not solid defenses (for instance, the American Spectator wonders where the critics were when the first Freakonomics made its claims about abortion - in other words, claiming all critics were liberals and Clinton Did It Too. Note that Andrew Sullivan has been critical of SuperFreakonomics, so…), and some go so far as to recommend the book while still recommending skepticism on their climate chapter.

There are some positive responses on Amazon, too, if you want. It is interesting to note that the book has an uncommon distribution of stars on its reviews (especially compared to the first Freakonomics).

I’ve never read the freakonomics series as I have already read the origional version by Karl Marx. In this case though the guy is right on the mark.

In global warming the two constants are:
1. it can never be scientifically proven or disproven 100%
2. The politics and PR matter much more than anything to do with science

That is why irrelevant political comentary like Superfreakanomics receives any kind of negative attention.

As long as europe is looking for a way to get out from the fossil fueled Iron grip of Russia and the United states is confronted with terrorism by its primary supplier of affordable fossil fuels, Global warming will occupy some position within geopolitics.

In any event this will provide us all with interesting geopolitical discussions veiled in science.

Keep up the De-smoging!

Speaking of economists, what about Jeff Rubin, who argues that the world is running out of cheap oil, which means the way we live will change.

His blog is on the Globe & Mail website:

as well as his own website:

and here’s a discussion by economists of his book and ideas:

running out of cheap oil is why we are ramping up the tar sands and drilling at the bottom of the Ocean. Eventually we will turn the coal deposits into liquid fuel and chop down the forests to feed the electric grid. It seems to be too difficult to transition to green.

Appparently we’ve been running out of oil since I was a little kid. Im 23 now and I keep hearing it, despite the fact that we continue to find more oil. It is sad that some people do not realize we have so much oil that Saudi Arabia has vast untapped areas that they don’t even need to drill yet because they have so much. If you want a good indicator of how much oil is left in the earth, look at oil prices in the Middle East. Considering oil costs pennies there, it is pretty obvious there is still tons and tons of oil.

Shooshmon, Saudi Arabia has incredible government subsidies keeping their prices artificially low.

On the flipside, during the last oil demand spike, they had the spigots on full open, and that was not enough to combat high prices.

The concern is not *running out* of oil, it is instead being unable to increase production to meet rising demand. This is a flow rate problem, not a stock problem, if you prefer commerce terms, or a first-order derivative problem if you prefer mathematical ones. Not that you seem to have any proficiency with either.

For the record, I am only a couple years older than you and yet I recognize that oil *discoveries* peaked in the 60s, that we have not found any “elephant” fields (i.e. Ghawar) in ages, and that we have already seen premonitions of this effect in existing countries - including the United States. US domestic oil production peaked in 1970. The US is not out of oil by any means, but production levels have been declining since 1970, with the leftover difference between production and demand being made up for with imports. If you think this same phenomenon will not occur elsewhere, then you are naive, and if you do not realize the implications for the world when the exporting countries no longer can keep up with demand for imports, you are blind.

Yes indeed, which is why we need to convince people to use renewable and more efficient sources of energy. For instance, redirect all subsidies from the oil companies to the real green companies.

Brian that was a good response you gave me. I’d like to take this time to lay out where I stand. I think pollution in general is bad, not sure if CO2 is a pollutant. Also, I am not convinced that CO2 significantly warms the atmosphere, it may. My issue here is that the amount of warming that there has been could be caused by something like a change in cloud coverage or the activity of the sun. Thus, I am for reducing pollution but not if it means a change in lifestyle. And this really annoys me because I feel like some people that make “green” products are out to make a profit. For example, $500 dollars for a solar powered cell phone charger. It is a cool device and I would like to use it but it costs way too much. So I guess it is enticing that Levit and Dubner have a solution that seems to be much cheaper than cap and trade. And Brian I’m guessing your Canadian, Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer are both from California and they’re both worthless as far as I’m concerned. So when I look at the poor condition that state is in right now, I’m very hesistant to jump on board any plans that those 2 hacks come up with.

“Thus, I am for reducing pollution but not if it means a change in lifestyle.”

And that, folks, sums up in a nutshell how we created this crisis.

“And this really annoys me because I feel like some people that make “green” products are out to make a profit.”

Damn those capitalists! But wait, I thought the green movement was a vast socilaist conspiracy intent on abolishing capitalism and enslaving us all to one world government?

Shooshmon, any familiarity with the science at all shows how painfully naive you are.

For instance, there has been no discernible long-term trend in solar activity for as long as we have been watching it with satellites (~1979). When you see things like the Great Global Warming Swindle and similar present this sort of thing, they cut off the charts around that time. The fact that solar activity tracks with temperature so perfectly for so long *and then diverges* is spectacular evidence that what is going on has nothing to do with the sun.

This is corroborated by other lines of evidence:
1) If the sun were the source of the warming, you would expect the equator to show warmer temperature anomalies than the poles, since more sunlight hits the equator. Instead, we see the exact opposite, something which was predicted in the 1979 Charney Report, which used very primitive climate models and was still able to predict polar amplification from increases in greenhouse gases. (Charney used models too primitive to accurately model ocean currents, leading to problems modelling Antarctica, but that has been resolved in the 30 years since then.)
2) If the sun were the source of the warming, you would expect the temperatures to rise more during the day than at night. We do not see this effect.
3) (This is the big one) If it were due to the sun, you would expect the stratosphere to be warming (as solar energy must pass through the stratosphere before it warms the earth). If it is due to the greenhouse effect (in layman terms, increased heat-trapping in the *troposphere*), you would expect the stratosphere to *cool*, as re-radiated heat is trapped before it can reach the stratosphere. Lo and behold, the stratosphere is observed to be cooling.

We know it is not the sun.

As for clouds, we know our knowledge in this area is uncertain, but we are aware of the rough order of magnitude of the impact of clouds on temperatures. It is many times smaller than the greenhouse effect - and unlike clouds, our level of scientific understanding on the greenhouse effect is substantial.

However, I will not waste any more time here, since no amount of science is going to get you to change your mind - you have already disagreed with the conclusion (politically), and are working to rationalize your decision instead of taking the evidence objectively and following it to where it leads.

(That said, I agree with you about the profit motive. That is why I oppose “greenwashing”, which is what you describe with that phone charger. What you need to learn is that unlike businessmen or politicians, scientists (as a group; there are a few exceptions) are NOT in it for the gold, and they are pretty explicit about where the evidence is pointing. Wiki the page “Scientific Opinion on Climate Change” and compare your own amateur understanding to that listed there.)

There were more smokebombs here.

Notice how Shooshmon did not actually reply to any of my criticisms of Levitt and Dubner, nor did he apologize for his attempt to mischaracterize our criticisms thereof, but instead (successfully) redirected conversation to a different talking point?

I await Shoosh admitting that Levitt and Dubner made critical mistakes and calling for them to be addressed.

Excuse me, I have no problem with capitalism. I have a problem with all this talk about how green is supposed to “save” money. About lifestyle, your using a computer too buddy. I’ll make some changes when I see you doing the same.


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