The Spectacle Blog

SuperFreakonomics Freaking Out the Greens

By on 10.16.09 | 5:02PM

SuperFreakonomics, the sequel to the pop economics mega-bestseller Freakonomics, is already generating a controversy on par with the controversies its predecessor caused -- except this time it's the left that is irate, over some of the book's dubious economics that downplay the threat posed by global warming.

The book, written by the University of Chicago econometrician Steve Levitt and the journalist Stephen Dubner, has the subtitle Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Clearly, it's meant to be provocative. The influential blogger and physicist Joe Romm read a review copy and strongly objected to the findings of the global warming chapter on his blog, faulting the economics and logic that lead Levitt and Dubner to conclude that geoengineering is a more promising method than carbon emissions reductions for countering global warming. Other left-wing blogs have quickly seconded the charges.

Paul Krugman, especially, called Romm's post "pretty damning," accusing Levitt and Dubner of "falling into the trap of counterintuitiveness." Krugman finishes,

Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms - but the trick is knowing when to stop.... if you're going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you'd better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counterintuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

It looks as if Superfreakonomics has gone way over that line.

The irony is rich. The whole point of the original Freakonomics was also to be counterintuitive in a provocative way. Famously, the most controversial claim in Freakonomics, repackaged from Levitt's doctoral dissertation, was that the legalization of abortion in the '70s led to decreased crime in the '90s. That findings of that study have been found over time to be less than robust. I would characterize abortion as an issue that is "both important and the subject of serious study."

If Levitt was "just plain, unforgivably wrong" on the abortion/crime findings, I haven't heard Krugman or anyone else on the left complain about it. But now that Levitt is applying that same questionable level of scholarship to the left's pet issue, suddenly he has fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness, and is prioritizing shock value over academic rigor.

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