Freakonomics, horseshit and bullshit

If, like me, you are puzzled about why apparently sensible people are seduced by the glib half-truths peddled by Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics and, now, Superfreakonomics then a quick read of Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker review will serve as a useful antidote.

In their chapter on climate change, the two Chicago chancers make great play with Victorian predictions about how our major cities would be buried in horseshit. You know the stuff: New York had 150,000 horses in 1880, each of them producing 22 lbs of ordure a day; people predicted that by 1930 horseshit in the city would be three stories high. Same story for London, etc. etc. But technology, in the form of electric power and the internal combustion engine came to our rescue. So — they cheerily maintain – the same thing will happen with climate change.

Levitt and Dubner maintain, in their breezy knowall style, that the global warming threat has been exaggerated and that there is uncertainty about how exactly the earth will respond to rising levels of carbon dioxide. And, just as with horse manure, solutions are bound to present themselves. “Technological fixes are often far simpler, and therefore cheaper, than the doomsayers could have imagined”.

Although they clearly know little about technology, the two lads are keen advocates of it. Well, certain kinds of technology anyway. They have no time for boring old stuff like wind turbines, solar cells, biofuels which are are all, in their view, more trouble than they’re worth because they’re aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, which is “the wrong goal”. Cutting back is difficult and annoying. Who really wants to use less oil? What we really need, they think, is ways of “re-engineering” the planet.

Er, how, exactly? Well, how about a huge fleet of fibreglass ships equipped with machines that would increase cloud cover over the oceans? Or a vast network of tubes for sucking cold water from the depths of the ocean? (I am not making this up.) Best of all, they say, why not mimic the climactic effect of volcanic eruptions? All that is needed is a way of pumping vast quantities of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. This could be done by sending up an 18-mile-long hose. “For anyone who loves cheap and simple solutions, things don’t get much better”.

Eh? In her review, Elizabeth Kolbert refers to Raymond Pierrehumbert’s wonderful ‘open letter’ to Levitt that was published in the RealClimate blog. This says, in part:

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. I will take Nathan Myhrvold’s claim about solar cells, which you quoted prominently in your book, as an example.

Pierrehumbert then does a scarifying dissection of Myhrvold’s nutty arithmetic, which is interesting not just because it shows how a supposedly-clever ex-Microsoft guru can make a complete fool of himself, but also because it shows how Levitt — who, after all, makes the claim that his statistical ingenuity makes him more insightful than the rest of us — can’t do arithmetic either.

Pierrehumbert, like Levitt, holds a prestigious Chair in the University of Chicago, so connoisseurs of academic dialogue will enjoy this paragraph in the prefatory section of his ‘open letter’:

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.

Amen to that. There is really only one good term for describing much of the Levitt/Dubner oeuvre: bullshit. What’s amazing — and depressing — is how many people seem to fall for it (at least if the sales figures for their books are anything to go by). What they remind me of most is those pop psychologists who make a living from giving glib keynote presentations about optical illusions to business conferences.