Is all publicity good publicity? Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of the bestselling book Freakonomics and the like-named blog, may find out. I, for one, have shelved any inclination to buy their new book, SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance, after seeing the blogosphere's reaction to its climate-change chapter.
The battle was joined in this post by the vocal climate-change activist (and fellow MIT physics PhD) Joe Romm. Romm followed up here, here, here, and here, giving some credence to the idea that he has an axe to grind. But in light of the wide audience the book is likely to get, a preemptive takedown might be justified.
Among Romm's claims is that the Steves misrepresent the views of Ken Caldeira, the Stanford ecologist who has been promoting research into geoengineering approaches to global warming. Romm quotes the book as saying of Caldeira, "his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight." Meanwhile, Caldeira's web page prominently features this statement: "Carbon dioxide is the right villain," says Caldeira, "insofar as inanimate objects can be villains." Sounds pretty clear.
Romm may not be entirely clean, though. Dubner claims that Romm goaded Caldeira into disavowing the book's characterization. Roger Pielke Jr., who has had his own battles with Romm, regards him as a liar. It does look as though Romm may have compromised his credibility, although his latest post makes a good defense.
But even if Romm made mistakes, it doesn't make those in SuperFreakonomics any more excusable. It is simply disingenuous to claim, as Dubner does, that the "Global Cooling" in the subtitle is supposed to refer to geoengineering solutions, not to the canard that there was a scientific consensus in the 1970s that climate was in danger of cooling. As painstakingly tabulated by Brad DeLong, this is just one of a whole host of misleading or mistaken statements in the book. Paul Krugman also takes issue with the Steves' take on a particular economics case for early action.
Krugman sums up the problem with Freakonomics' trademark contrarianism:
Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It's one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But 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.