Monday, 19 October 2009

Frauds and Fools

Another day, another new book on global warming (well, a chapter on it, anyways), and another storm of accusations of misrepresentation and politicking and conspiracies. It's all very interesting.

I have a feeling Superfreakonomics (Levitt and Dubner) is going to be name-checked quite a bit pretty soon, either by those who deny either our role in climate change or our ability to stop it, or by those looking for another example of "we can't be sure we're all doomed so there's no point in doing anything" thinking that they can tear into pieces.

Given that distinct possibility, then, it's worth thinking a little about what's going on. It's quite an interesting story. A fairly depressing one, too, because it seems to sum up a lot of the problems plaguing discussion of global warming. We begin with Joseph Romm, who wrote a blog post arguing that much of the books characterisation of the debate is unfair, and that there are glaringly obvious mistakes and omissions. At the conclusion of this (fairly vitriolic) takedown, he accuses the authors of misrepresenting the work of climate scientist Ken Caldeira. Caldeira himself emailed to say:
If you talk all day, and somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context because they want to make a provocative and controversial chapter, there is not much you can do.
It was the suggestion that "[Caldeira's] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight" that particularly rankled, however.

What happened next isn't entirely clear. According to Romm, "Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira, and when he saw a version from Myrhvold, he objected to it". According to Dubner, they did run the quote by Caldeira, and he did not object to it, later admitting that he had failed to proof check closely enough:
They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.
I don't think the two positions are entirely mutually exclusive, in that they seem to be shaped by what Caldeira thought at various times. It's hardly unreasonable to speculate that he started off believing the quote had not been in what he'd read, then later double-checked and realised it had been and he had missed it. I also don't want to totally exclude the possibility that Romm has been a little... overenthusiastic in attempting to portray Levitt and Dubner as deliberately manipulative. If there is anything to be learned here by those who accept our role in damaging the planet and believe in our ability to mitigate that damage, it's that we don't do ourselves any favours by treating each contrarian position as automatically insincere. In general, those that whine about "enviro-fascists" (a term which generates almost 19 000 Google hits) trying to silence their dissent are only fractionally less unctuous than those who claim their free speech is being trampled on whenever people object to them calling Muslims "evil". I understand entirely why anyone wouldn't want to give these people the benefit of the doubt. If we are ever to get anywhere, however, it is vital to be able to tell a fraud from a fool.

Otherwise, events follow a fairly well-worn path. Fromm's post contained about a dozen points regarding misrepresentations and outright distortions. The UCS article Dubner links to has several more. Even Caldeira himself stated that the full chapter is misleading, even if his own contributions are not. Because of Romm's accusations, though, Dubner can sidestep these issues almost entirely, and instead make this about unfair attacks by rabid environmentalists. It allows him to frame a debate which should be about whether or not the chapter is accurate in terms of whether or not the chapter is inaccurate deliberately. Everything else gets lost in the confusion, and confusion, like uncertainty, is not our friend (as Brad DeLong reminds us, whilst giving a fairly comprehensive list of reasons why Levitt and Dubner have no idea what they're talking about). Those who advocate no action regarding climate change love nothing more than to label their opponents as shrill zealots, because it's always easier to decide someone isn't worth listening to than it is to hear what's being said and argue against it. Part of dealing with this tactic is to unmask it for what it is, but another part is to make it harder for it to be applied.

Frauds and fools, people. Frauds and fools.

Update: Forgot to mention an earlier piece by Dubner, and Scott Lemieux's brief yet thorough takedown of it, that shows he's thinking along the same lines as I am: "When you say that your critics are shrill rather than explaining why they're wrong, it's a pretty clear sign that you've got nothing."


Tomsk said...

As far as I can tell (without reading the book, seeing as it hasn't been published yet), Levitt and Dubner aren't advocating no action to combat climate change. Rather they're claiming that geo-engineering - specifically, pumping the atmosphere full of sulphates - is the cheapest way to deal with the problem.

RealClimate has a good article about why their proposed solution is reckless. But it's nevertheless important to have the debate about the place of geo-engineering in the toolbox. For example, scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere could potentially make a very useful contribution. Though I note that some people don't regard this as geo-engineering (presumably that tag can only be applied to ideas which pass some wackiness threshold).

What I'd like to know is if Superfreakonomics tries the same economic trick as the first book, namely diluting two interesting chapters with a quart of rusk-like filler and passing it off as a full-length work.

SpaceSquid said...

It's a fair point, I've been a little fast and loose here. Assuming Krugman and Gans are correct in their assessments, Levitt and Dubner are indeed not advocating no action, they are suggesting that all current action is worthless, because incentives and prices work to change the world only in all other cases except this one, and that a better solution is to either create a giant pipe that will launch sulphur into the atmosphere, or build a giant disc in orbit that can block out the sun. Whilst I can see the distinction you're making, the impression gleaned from what I have read so far is that the approach taken is "What people currently propose is too hard, here is a magic fix without any thought to cost, political difficulties or knock-on effects; let's go!".

That isn't a debate, it's an attempt to make one proposal seem more attractive than another by applying asymmetric criticism. Whilst I agree that intelligent and honest consideration of geo-engineering solutions should be part of the debate (and of course are, this is not the first I'm hearing of CO2 scrubbing, though I appreciate the link; how does one put a link in comments anyhow?), I submit there is little practical difference between the stances of "We aren't to blame", "We are to blame but can't do anything about it" and "We are to blame, and everyone else's proposed solutions are terrible, but here's an easy fix: a fleet of unicorns!". Certainly all three serve to undermine attempts to actually apply the solutions people have proposed, justified and costed.

Tomsk said...

I agree with you there, but I think you're being unduly cynical about unicorn fleets. If we send enough of them into space they could easily serve as a sunshield.

To put a link in use an HTML tag like so:

<a href="">Leftist propaganda</a>

SpaceSquid said...

Thanks for that, Tomsk!