Saturday, October 17, 2009

Superfreakonomics and the glory of contrarianism

The Union of Concerned Scientists, Joe Romm at Climate Progress, William Connolley and Tim Lambert have done a fine job rebutting the cynical and lazy "global cooling" section of the upcoming book Superfreakonomics*.

Of the criticisms that climate scientists receive from those skeptical of climate change, the most ridiculous by far is that we are in it for the money. Just ask Michael Tobis, who mocks this claim with the very name of his blog.

My first public talk on climate change was about ten years ago. I was the token graduate student panel with a local religious leader and a very well-known emeritus professor whom I have always held in high regard. A question came from the audience about scientific certainty. The professor said "Scientists are essentially paid to disagree. That's what makes the consensus on climate change so remarkable".

You won't advance far in science by repeating other people's work. If you want to get a grant funded, your proposal needs to pose a new question or challenge existing findings [note: people sometimes claim climate "skeptical" research cannot obtain funding; that's not because there's some cabal, it is because research must have a sound scientific basis and methods in order to get funded]. If you want to get a paper in a top journal like Nature or Science, your results have to be new, different, and important. And if you want to get popular coverage or your results, you need a splashy headline.

Levitt and Dubner made a splash with the first book Freakonomics, by expounding a variety of alternate explanations for societal phenomena. You could say the sales and the recognition was deserved too. It was new, it was smart, and it was based on thorough research. This book, at least the section challenging the science of climate change and the logic of mitigation, is not. The arguments are old, they have been used and refuted countless times before, and the research was clearly lazy (read Romm on this).

This time, the authors are simply getting paid for disagreeing with others.

* feel free to link to more rebuttals in the comments


Tyler said...

Note: Potential typo in blog title (Superfreakeconomics VS Superfreakonomics)

It's an interesting concept, although I do see the sense behind it. After all, it is much easier to prove something false than it is to prove something true.

Steve Bloom said...

Krugman appears to be starting a serious professional attack on Levitt (Dubner as a journalist being immune to such criticism).

MT, cruelly but pithily: Dubn and Dubner.

Marion Delgado said...

Yes! Yes! Again, 10 years ago was relatively late in the game, even! The thing that kills me is how they pretend this is new - and every year it's brand new. Of course there was a consensus then.

Not only did I have people sending me info on global warming back in the very early 80s when we were still slightly more worried about ozone depletion, not only did Al Gore make it a key feature of EITB in 1992, 4 years after James Hansen's vital presentation, but even some of the tropes they give out are pre-debunked - when McIntyre claimed that Hansen had said 1998 was hotter in the contiguous US than 1934, not only had a lot of us read Hansen saying the opposite, but I'd had a mailing in 1999 from an environmental group that mentioned in passing that 1998 was almost as hot in the contiguous US as 1934. I mention that only as an example of what happens all the time.

By then, there was a huge consensus on virtually everything that the public is just now seeing a consensus on. It's always Groundhog Day - I think it'd be a worthwhile thing, really, to simply say, this is the first time someone made (what is now denialist claim X) all those years ago - I'd say urgent discussion on this started in the 1950s for the US. Once people realize that all of this has been thought of, that will change their minds.

By the way, once they kill off the reefs, we can make new ones out of our still planned for obsolescence cars, right? And cremation ashes.