The first Freakonomics book--which applied economic theory to sumo wrestlers, drug dealing, and the dynamics of naming babies--was not without controversy. (The discussion surrounding its release memorably included The New Republic's Noam Scheiber and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt tussling over the concavity of Levitt's chest). But the follow-up, SuperFreakonomics, has provoked a far greater debate--this time about the authors' treatment of climate change.
It all started with climate activist Joe Romm accusing the authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of global warming denial and misrepresenting the research of a key climate scientist. They pushed back, and fellow New York Times blogger and celebrated columnist Paul Krugman jumped in the fray:
- Romm: These global-warming deniers misrepresented research (Oct. 12): Romm begins by quoting Levitt and Dubner saying that "[a]ny religion ... has its heretics, and global warming is no exception." Romm calls this "staggeringly anti-scientific statement ... just one of the many, many peaces of outright nonsense from SuperFreakonomics." He writes that Levitt, to the detriment of his reputation, "decided to adopt the contrarian view of global warming, which takes him far outside of his expertise." Among his other points of attack, Romm accuses Levitt and Dubner of mischaracterizing the work of climate scientist Ken Caldeira.
- Dubner: This is absurd: In correspondence published on economist Brad DeLong's blog on October 17, author Dubner defends his and his colleague Levitt's position:
It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm's extremely misleading attack has spread ... His attack is full of deception and outright lies. He makes it sound as if we somehow twisted and abused Caldeira's research; nothing could be further from the truth ... This is politics that's being played now, nothing else.
- Krugman: Actually, Leavitt and Dubner do mischaracterize studies (Oct. 17, 9:55 a.m.): Levitt and Dubner, Paul Krugman alleges in the New York Times, "grossly misrepresent other peoples’ research, in both climate science and economics." He debunks Levitt and Dubner's claim about "global cooling" being widely accepted in the 1970s, argues that the authors completely mischaracterize an economics paper in the course of their argument, and concludes that "we’re not even getting into substance--just the basic issue of representing correctly what other people said."
- Leavitt: We don't deny global warming (Oct. 17, 11:16 a.m.): "SuperFreakonomics isn’t even on sale yet," begins Levitt writing from his and Dubner's own New York Times blog, "and the attacks on our chapter about global warming are already underway." He defends his book:
The bottom line is that the foundation of these attacks is essentially fraudulent ... Like those who are criticizing us, we believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon and that global warming is an important issue to solve. Where we differ from the critics is in our view of the most effective solutions to this problem. The statements being circulated create the false impression that our analysis of the global-warming crisis is ideological and unscientific. Nothing could be further from the truth.
- Dubner: And we don't mischaracterize studies (Oct. 18, 12:31 p.m.): "The real purpose," writes Dubner, of the climate change chapter "is figuring out how to cool the Earth if indeed it becomes catastrophically warmer." He says he and Levitt did not in fact misrepresent scientist Ken Caldeira's work: "If that were true, I would come after us with pitchforks too." But in fact, he writes, blogger Joe Romm went to Caldeira purely to find evidence of misrepresentation, and then overstated what he found:
But would be good if the debate were inspired by the content of our chapter rather than a partisan attack built around a faulty central premise: that we twisted a leading climate scientist’s words to suit our own purposes. After all, if the idea is to actually fight global warming, doesn’t it make sense to think about solutions beyond carbon mitigation?
- Krugman: But your chapter on climate change is still inexcusable (Oct. 18, 5:39 p.m.): "Legalistic quibbling about who said what in an email," writes Krugman of Dubner's he-said-he-said correspondence with Romm and Caldeira, "isn’t going to help Dubner and Levitt here: in this crucial chapter, there’s an average of one statement per page that’s either flatly untrue or deeply misleading."