Superfreakonomics gets duly smacked down

A lesson to all of those stylized pop-interpreters of academia: be prepared for some heat if you make authoritative claims outside your area of expertise.

Apparently Dubner and Levitt (henceforth the Stevens) thought they had enough street cred to make light of climate science, dismissing the large and authoritative body of research on the human-induced changes in the Earth’s climate as “religion” (p. 170). Ouch. You can’t do a drive-by like that and expect no retaliation. One of the best dissections is over at Climate Progress, with multiple updates. Another is delivered by Prof. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert (Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago), over at RealClimate.

Prof. Pierrehumbert:

Dear Mr. Levitt,

The problem of global warming is so big that solving it will require creative thinking from many disciplines…

I am addressing this to you rather than your journalist-coauthor because one has become all too accustomed to tendentious screeds from media personalities (think Glenn Beck) with a reckless disregard for the truth. However, if it has come to pass that we can’t expect the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor (and Clark Medalist to boot) at a top-rated department of a respected university to think clearly and honestly with numbers, we are indeed in a sad way.

By now there have been many detailed dissections of everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics, but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense. If you were stupid, it wouldn’t be so bad to have messed up such elementary reasoning, but I don’t by any means think you are stupid. That makes the failure to do the thinking all the more disappointing.

From my perspective as an academic-in-training, there are few sins less egregious than misrepresenting an important issue, mischaracterizing sources, or making strong claims outside of your academic expertise. Only patent plagiarism or fabrication, or mistreatment of human subjects, would probably trump such chutzpah. Pierrehumbert is not only addressing the substantive (mis)claims of the Stevens, and the potential impact they may have on the issue as best-selling authors, but he’s putting Levitt back into place as an academic. Not that economists don’t have a place at the table for climate change debate, surely they bring a useful set of skills and perspectives. But, there are some claims that you aren’t qualified to make (political scientists, for example, are notoriously useless at aqueduct construction).

Bottom line: know your place. And, don’t rush to buy Superfreakonomics.

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