Sunday, November 15, 2009

Like a Stopped Clock, WaPo Finally Gets One Right

Despite a sorry history of giving excessive op-ed space to climate "experts" George Will and Bjorn Lomborg, the WaPo finally gets it right for once. In today's Outlook/used-to-be Book World section, Neil Irwin, an economics reporter, gives the authors of Superfreakonomics some of their own medicine (How Freakonomics got super, freaky and scary):
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner are to blame for the global financial crisis.

See, back in 2005, they wrote "Freakonomics," a wildly successful book brimming with interesting stories about why incentives matter and how actions have unintended consequences. Indeed, incentives do matter, and actions (or publications) do have unintended consequences: Their book made economists around the world more inclined to come up with cute little analyses of the business of being a drug dealer or the impact of a first name on a child's success. And that distracted them, so they didn't notice the giant housing and credit bubbles that in hindsight were plain to see. A global collapse ensued.
More seriously, Irwin exposes the book's errors on prostitution and drunk walking before taking on the climate issue:
Both of those problems are mild compared with the ones in the penultimate chapter, in which the authors bring their oh-so-clever approach to the climate debate. The standard strategy for preventing potentially catastrophic global warming, one advanced by an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists and environmental economists, is to put in place policies to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide humankind emits. That's apparently too conventional for Levitt and Dubner, who spend the vast majority of their chapter (with time taken out for potshots at Al Gore) examining the work of scientist/entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvhold's crew, a group that is exploring the idea of pumping sulfur into the upper atmosphere and other neat tricks that just may be cheaper, easier ways to combat global warming.

It would be great if one of those schemes turns out to work. Fantastic, even. But Levitt and Dubner seem to simply presume that because one of them might work, Gore et al. are foolish to push to reduce emissions. It is like a family declining to save for college because their 10-year-old Little Leaguer with a decent arm may end up getting a full baseball scholarship.
This review follows closely after Elizabeth Kolbert's demolition of the book in the current New Yorker. Kolbert takes off from the Freakos' analysis of the 19th century New York horse manure crisis to conclude:
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.
Kolbert held an online discussion of the subject on November 11.

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