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November 01, 2009

Steven Levitt, Easy Grader

This is from a long, detailed review in the Boston Globe of Superfreakonomics:

A similar problem arises in another instance when the authors call carbon dioxide’s role into question. At one point Dubner and Levitt write, “Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth: ice-cap evidence shows that over the past several hundred thousand years, carbon dioxide levels have risen after a rise in temperature, not the other way around.”

In the endnote for this passage, the authors cite a 2004 blog post written by Jeffrey Severinghaus, a professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, summarizing ice core research he did on the beginning and end of ice ages. The fourth sentence of that blog entry reads, “Does this prove that CO2 doesn’t cause global warming? The answer is no.” Severinghaus has not read “SuperFreakonomics,” but when the passage was read to him over the phone, he called it “flat-out misrepresentation.”...

Asked over e-mail about the use of Severinghaus’s research, Levitt responded, “The sentence may be poorly written, but I do not think it is factually inaccurate.” He also defended the citation on the grounds that, while Severinghaus may not think his finding supports their point, it does not clearly disprove it, either. “Severinghaus says that this is not definitive evidence against CO2 warming the earth; he certainly can’t argue that this is definitive evidence that CO2 does warm the earth,” Levitt wrote.

Hopefully all professors at the University of Chicago are like Stephen Levitt.

PROFESSOR LEVITT: None of the citations in your paper actually support the points you're making.

STUDENT: Maybe so...but my supporting citations don't definitively prove that I'm wrong.


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at November 1, 2009 11:08 PM

WOW! levitt and dubner are more tool-ish than a swiss army knife.

freakonomics seemed a bit friedmanite, whereas this new book seems to be ann attempt to dethrone the moustache of understanding in 'how to get things completely bass-ackwards while taking as many circuitous ways as possible to get there'

Posted by: almostinfamous at November 2, 2009 11:44 AM

The relevant principle that seems to be eluding Dumber 'n Lettuce, if not Severinghaus as well, is that CO2 concentration and global temperature form a positive feedback system. It doesn't matter which one goes up first, the other will follow.

Posted by: SunMesa at November 2, 2009 01:12 PM

Deltoid has been all over this, of course.

I liked bits of the first book - particularly the stuff about Stetson Kennedy - but at the end of the day it's still just economics, the "insights" of which tend to fall into one of two categories: the atrociously wrong-headed and the blindingly obvious. Freakonomics was supposedly built around the idea that the best way to understand why people do things is to investigate their incentive, a ludicrous misconception of human nature fairly typical of economists. Of course, when necessary the authors got around the limitations of that abstraction by simply redefining incentive to mean anything they wanted it to mean. Fun book or not, at all times it was hard to see why people thought Levitt was special.

Posted by: weaver at November 2, 2009 08:35 PM

i'm no fan of this guy or his books, but i think he my have a valid point here. his book says "Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth." the post he cited said "Does this prove that CO2 doesn’t cause global warming? The answer is no." these two statements simply do not contradict one another.

that Severinghaus himself says his conclusions were misrepresented can't be argued with; he would know, of course. but i think someone at the boston globe is trying to make some extra hay from one of Levitt's few valid deflections.

i also think books that cite blogs are more likely to fuck up. sorry, blogs.

Posted by: utica at November 3, 2009 02:53 PM

[Dubner and Levitt] characterize the controversy as a cautionary tale about the speed and free-floating vitriol of the blogosphere,

Allow me to rebut on behalf of the blog-thingy: Suck my cock, ass-monkeys.

It really annoys me when a person who builds a reputation on being outrageous accuses his opponents of not being polite enough.

Of course, Drake Bennet could be misrepresenting their opinion, that can happen too.

Posted by: Christopher at November 3, 2009 03:36 PM

I do with the article had explained what, exactly, it means that the weather has been "cooling" - what it means is that the spike of heat in 1998 hasn't been repeated. Of course, nobody but nobody denies that the trend is: the 00s are hotter than the 90s, and the 90s are hotter than the 80s. That cooling point is simply garbage. If an economist claimed that some representative middle class household got much poorer in the 00s, and it turned out that his base was in 1998, when the head of the household won a 50,000 dollar sweepstakes - and the household had been steadily rising in income in the 90s and continued to do so in the 00s - that economist would simply be laughed at. And forced to write for the National Review.
That a journalist can't understand a statistical trend is not that important. But Levitt and Dubner understand it well. They are simply the new kind of Bush era liar - cherrypicking the data to misrepresent the facts.

Posted by: roger at November 5, 2009 12:15 PM