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SuperFreakonomics

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Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance is a non-fiction book by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, published October 2009.[1]. It is a sequel to Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.

Critiques

Statisticians Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung say that in analysing the case studies of this and the previous book,

"we encountered a range of avoidable mistakes, from back-of-the-envelope analyses gone wrong to unexamined assumptions to an uncritical reliance on the work of Levitt’s friends and colleagues. This turns accessibility on its head: Readers must work to discern which conclusions are fully quantitative, which are somewhat data driven and which are purely speculative."[2]

Predicting terrorists from bank activity

Gelman and Fung note that in the "predicting terrorists" analysis, the algorithm that's touted as unusually successful because a high percent of the individuals it flags are in fact terrorists, turns out to have a very high - but not noted in the book - false-negative rate, flagging only 1% of terrorists in the population analyzed; and they point out that "This unavoidable tradeoff between false positive and false negative errors is a well-known property of all statistical-prediction applications. Circling back to check all the factors involved in the problem might have helped the authors avoid this mistake."[2]

Drunk driving chapter

"The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one.", said Ezra Klein about the chapter on drunk driving.[3]

Gelman and Fung note that in the "drunk driving" analysis,

"...Levitt and Dubner use a back-of-the-envelope calculation to make the contrarian claim that driving drunk is safer than walking drunk.... The problem with this argument... lies in the assumption that the driver and the walker are the same type of person, making the same kinds of choices, except for their choice of transportation. Such all-else-equal thinking is a common statistical fallacy. In fact, driver and walker are likely to differ in many ways other than their mode of travel. What seem like natural calculations are stymied by the impracticality, in real life, of changing one variable while leaving all other variables constant."[2]

‘Global Cooling’ chapter

The book's contrarian global warming chapter, which advocates geoengineering to counter global warming, has been panned by critics, among them Paul Krugman[4].

"Black solar cell" argument error

Raymond Pierrehumbert noted that in your book, "Myhrvold claimed, in effect, that it was pointless to try to solve global warming by building solar cells, because they are black and absorb all the solar energy that hits them, but convert only some 12% to electricity while radiating the rest as heat, warming the planet", but Pierrehumbert pointed out that

"really simple arithmetic...would have been enough to tell you that the claim that the blackness of solar cells makes solar energy pointless is complete and utter nonsense"

- then walked through the math to show Myhrvold's claim was false, concluding that

"...[even] at the end of the first year you already come out ahead [with solar panels] even if you neglect the waste heat that would have been emitted by burning fossil fuels instead...the bottom line...is that the heat-trapping effect of CO2 is the 800-pound gorilla in climate change."[5]

Geoengineering

In a critique titled "Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong"[6], Gavin Schmidt refutes Levitt's & Dubner's arguments, concluding that:

"the reasons why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering...are based on a misreading of the science, a misrepresentation of proposed solutions, and truly bizarre interpretations of how environmental problems have been dealt with in the past. These are, in the end, much worse errors than their careless misquotes and over-eagerness to shock highlighted by the other critiques. Geo-engineering is neither cheap, nor a fix, and ...it is very likely...a bad idea"

Schmidt explains that:

  • Geo-engineering is dangerous - plenty could go wrong
  • Geo-engineering is not a fix
  • While it's true that human nature is unlikely to change anytime soon, "societies in the developed world... have succeeded in greatly reducing ...[environmentally offensive] actions and it’s instructive to see how that happened..."

Schmidt also quotes Krugman saying:

"...it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness...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 counter-intuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong."

Minor, but "concrete", errors in the book

The chapter contains numerous misleading statements[7], plus it misquotes and misrepresents Ken Caldeira, say Joe Romm[7] and Ken Caldeira[8] The Union of Concerned Scientists stated that the book mischaracterized climate science and repeats discredited arguments.[9] - it presents geoengineering with sulfur aerosols as a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.[10], wrongly attributing this perspective to Caldeira.[8]

Articles and Resources

References

  1. SuperFreakonomics Is Out Today, 2009-10-20
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 American Scientist, Freakonomics: What Went Wrong? Examination of a very popular popular-statistics series reveals avoidable errors, by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung, December 2011
  3. Ezra Klein (2009-10-16). The Shoddy Statistics of Super Freakonomics.
  4. Superfreakonomics on climate, part 1 (2009-10-17).
  5. Real Climate, An open letter to Steve Levitt by Raymond Pierrehumbert, 2009-10-29
  6. RealClimate, [1], December 2009
  7. 7.0 7.1 Joe Romm (2009-10-19). Anatomy of a debunking. climateprogress.org.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Jeff Goodell (2009-10-21). Geoengineering the Planet: The Possibilities and the Pitfalls (Caldeira interview). Yale Environment 360. Retrieved on 2009-10-22.
  9. New Book "SuperFreakonomics" Mischaracterizes Climate Science. Union of Concerned Scientists (2009-10-15).
  10. Brad DeLong (2009-10-19). Yet More Superfreakonomics Blogging.. Grasping Reality with All Eight Tentacles.

Related SourceWatch Articles

External resources

External articles

Wikipedia also has an article on SuperFreakonomics. This article may use content from the Wikipedia article under the terms of the GFDL.