SuperFreakonomics Screws Up Climate Change
Photo via the Globe and Mail
SuperFreakonomics' Super Climate Fail
You can't believe everything you read--anyone who goes online in this information-addled age surely has learned that lesson by now. But there seems to be a special rule for books. People tend to give them more respect than an errant blog post they stumble upon at 5 am. But it turns out that those things can be just as fallible. Case in point: SuperFreakonimics, the followup to the wildly popular Freakonomics, has been causing quite a stir for offering some of the worst climate journalism this side of Sean Hannity. Here's the story. Yes, the book was intended to be controversial--its full title is "SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance."
SuperFreakonomics Global Cooling Controversty
But I'm guessing it wasn't supposed to be flat out wrong. The fifth chapter of the book, which comes out tomorrow, is entitled 'Global Cooling,' and evidently misleads readers by equating the very much proven theory of global climate change with the very much disproved theory about global cooling that was trumpeted by a handful of scientists in the 70s.
From there, the book goes on to make misleading claims about solar panels, geoengineering, and about the nature of climate change itself. The book's authors, Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner, even misquote the only climate scientist they interviews. Prominent climate blogger Joe Romm of Climate Progress caught the book's many errors while reading through a review copy, and posted the high voltage (and lengthily titled) critical post Error-riddled 'Superfreakonomics': New book pushes global cooling myths, sheer illogic, and "patent nonsense" -- and the primary climatologist it relies on, Ken Caldeira, says "it is an inaccurate portrayal of me" and "misleading" in "many" places.
Romm's post (well worth a read) was inflammatory but mostly right on--almost immediately, luminaries like Paul Krugman, Berkley economist Brad DeLong, the scientists at RealClimate, and countless others sided with the view that SuperFreakonomics mangles climate science.
Bad Science Makes the Cut
Here's just one example put forward in the book: The authors state that solar panels are actually bad for the environment, because they are inefficient, all black, and radiate more global warming-causing heat than they can turn into energy.
Which is patently false. Some solar panels are black--though many are blue--and they are far more efficient in reality than Levitt states. Also, solar panels are most often placed over dark surfaces, or surfaces that absorb more heat than the panels that cover them do.
They then go on to claim (erroneously) that there's really a slim chance climate change will cause an catastrophe at all, and efforts to reduce carbon emissions are infeasible (when in fact the scientist they cite believes exact opposite). Finally, they essentially end up advocating relying on geoengineering and doing nothing about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Human ingenuity has saved the day before, they argue--Real Climate has a fantastic piece on why this is dangerous, confused, and incorrect thinking.
SuperFreakonomics: A Source of Misinformation
Next, Dubner wrote a lengthy post on his New York Times blog defending his quotations and attacking Joe Romm--but he failed to defend a single one of his books' untruthful proclamations.
I, of course, haven't read the book, though assessments like this from Paul Krugman "OK, I'm working my way through the climate chapter -- and the first five pages, by themselves, are enough to discredit the whole thing" tend to make me think it'd be a waste of time. Krugman goes on to dismantle the economic theory it advances towards climate change.
So, to wrap it all up--it looks like false quotes, bad science, scant fact checking, and a seal of disapproval from just about every eminent climate thinker will sink SuperFreakonomics credibility before it even hits the shelves.
UPDATE: If you want to see the controversial chapter for yourself, EnviroKnow has the whole thing online here.
More on the SuperFreakonomics Saga
A counterintuitive train wreck
Part 5: Error-riddled Superfreakonomics claims Caldeira's "research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain." Caldeira updates his website to read "Carbon dioxide is the right villain."