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Superfreakonomics = Supersketchy?

October 22, 2009

by Kevin Burke
Superfreakonomics = Supersketchy?

The Athenaeum will get its money's worth on Thursday night: speaker Steven Levitt's new book, SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance, written with Stephen Dubner, has stirred up a commotion in the blogosphere over the past week, even though it's only been on sale since Tuesday. The first Freakonomics book grew out of a series of articles Levitt and Dubner wrote for New York Times Magazine. As Dubner says in a promo video, "Economics is about inflation, interest rates and the stock market. Freakonomics is about prostitutes, crack dealers and corrupt sumo wrestlers." The book covered Levitt's academic work on crime, child mortality, and cheating in a story form suitable for the lay reader. Their brand of pop social science turned out to be wildly popular; soon after, many other economists wrote their own books about popular economics. In the sequel to Freaknomics, the authors cover a wider range of topics, with mixed results; one Washington Post blogger wrote,

Super Freakonomics is really two books in one: Some of the chapters are based on a deep data set that reveals interesting insights about the underlying subject. Half of the chapters are not based on any data set at all, and are more of an effort to invent interesting insights about subject matter the authors don't know that well. The chapters of the book that fit the first description are quite good. The chapters of the book that fit the second -- drunk driving, say, or global warming -- are quite bad.

Some parts of the book, particularly the profile of John List, Levitt's critiques of laboratory experiments, a story about Ignaz Semmelweiss's research into hand washing, and a re-telling of the Kitty Genovese story, have garnered high praise. Other parts, specifically the chapter of the book discussing global warming, have been met with scorn. Levitt and Dubner argue that we have neither the political will, nor the desire, to implement any tough solution to the global warming problem. After some discussion of how difficult it is to predict our climate future, the authors discuss the merits of several possible approaches to geoengineering, or large man-made changes in the Earth's climate (here's an example of a geoengineering scheme that the scientists claim can eliminate the rise in global temperatures for a few billion dollars).

This chapter has provoked a series of arguments in the blogosphere. First, Joseph Romm, a liberal blogger for Climate Progress, found several factual errors in the chapter, most notably the book's claim that solar panels are black, which limits their heat-gathering ability (most are blue), and accused the authors of anti-climate change bias. The authors' reply on the Freakonomics blog addressed some of the concerns with the chapter, and also presented evidence that Romm had asked Ken Caldeira, one of the book's sources, to tell Romm that the Freakonomics authors misrepresented Caldeira's views - in other words, that Romm had tried to put words in Caldeira's mouth.

Asking a source to feed you a quote is a journalistic faux pas, but the cat had been let out of the bag; other bloggers started finding problems with the global warming chapter as well. Fall 2004 Ath speaker Paul Krugman, fall 2008 Ath speaker Matt Yglesias, spring 2009 Ath speaker Andrew Sullivan, and others noted problems and factual errors in the global warming chapter. In their search for counterintuitive social science arguments, the detractors said, the authors had gone too far and presented a questionable scientific and political argument in a cocksure way.

Together, these criticisms echo the truism that nowadays, it's almost always in a writer's self interest to be more interesting than factually accurate. Under the catchy headline "Freakonomics: the intellectual's Glenn Beck?" Mark Liberman labels this trend the "Pundit's Dilemma." The media tends to latch on to newsworthy stories, which gives analysts an incentive to hype their arguments in the interest of coverage while the unvarnished truth falls by the wayside. There's a risk to being caught (like the Balloon Boy), so while sources don't exaggerate to the point of lying outright, everyone expects some embroidery. In this case, the authors may have overstated the case for geoengineering. It's counterintuitive to think that we could fix our global warming headache for a relatively small amount. The Pundit's Dilemma, in this case, is that the commotion over the global warming chapter will probably induce more people to buy the book.

This debate also brings into sharp focus the merits of the blogosphere as a feedback mechanism, and the problems with books in print. Before the book even came out, prominent econ bloggers were dissecting the claims in the book, and Levitt and Dubner were forced to backtrack. But the book will get published in its current form, factual errors and all; if the authors decide to rewrite the chapter, the earliest the revised version will hit bookstores is a few months from now, eons in blog time. If their book was published electronically they could make the changes today. But in the blogosphere, if someone makes an inaccurate claim, it usually gets corrected or rebutted within a matter of hours. Every post by Levitt and Dubner gets read by tens of thousands of people; their book chapter was reviewed by a few editors and climate scientists. The truth has a higher chance of coming through online.

Like it or not, the success of Freakonomics has made Levitt a spokesman for the economics profession, a sort of interpreter for the common man. People will listen if he says we don't need to worry so much about global warming because we can make a cheap fix down the line. His books may be leading more students (like myself) into economics, which will make them read more economics and learn about the basic principles like comparative advantage, opportunity cost and marginal analysis. However, if his books are the only economics books a layperson will touch, they may lead those people to think that all economists do is exploit arbitrary differences/mistakes in policy administration to glean some counterintuitive insight about how we behave. But perhaps I am being too harsh - if his book hadn't made me interested in reading economics blogs and learning economic analysis, would I be in a position to write this review?

Levitt is slated to go on Good Morning America on Friday morning, so I expect that his prepared remarks on Thursday night will be entirely bland ("Isn't it interesting that terrorists don't buy life insurance?"). Perhaps we can make a dedicated effort, in the pre-dinner chat, the head table and the Q&A to get him to address some of the counter-arguments to the book's global warming chapter. Levitt made his reputation by presenting results that contradicted received social wisdom; let's see if any CMC students will do the same on Thursday night.

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