The Freakonomics solution to finding yourself in a hole

Or: Levitt and Dubner Keep Digging, Part One

You’d think that the authors of a pop-econ best seller would be familiar with the sunk cost effect. You’d be wrong.

Criticism of Levitt and Dubner’s (L&D from here on) atrocious chapter on climate has been swift and remarkably in-depth. L&D have been shown to have misrepresented everything from the position of their main expert Ken Caldeira to alleged global warming caused by solar panels.

Rather than acknowledge that they’ve massively screwed up,  L&D have gone on the attack- they’re trying to dismiss the substantive and largely unanswered critiques of their shoddy work as little more than the response of religious zealots, and refocus media attention to their ‘unconventional, counter-intuitive, boy aren’t we more clever than the conventional wisdom’ trademark insights.

L&D want you to know that this whole climate change problem could be solved at a mere pittance if it weren’t for those in the thrall of Political Correctness and Big Government, not to mention the dirty fucking hippies and the climate “science” community- those flat earthers. Oh, you think I’m joking:

Faced with these two options [emissions reductions and geo-engineering], most people would aggressively explore the latter solution (while possibly also investing in the first if the threat were deadly enough).

Unless, of course, the threat we were talking about was global warming. On that issue, a lethal combination of political correctness and entrenched special interests has convinced the chattering classes that the costly, slow and difficult path is the only option, stifling any discussion of cheap, easy and reversible solutions that might be available…

Why, then, are so few people willing to talk about such “geoengineering” solutions? There could be a fear of unintended environmental consequences, although the lack of significant side effects from Pinatubo is encouraging. It might be that this solution just seems too good to be true. Could it really be so simple and cheap? Modern society is in love with costly, complicated solutions. (Governments in particular seem to like them.)…

Devoted environmentalists, meanwhile, as well as some members of the tight-knit climate-science community, find this sort of idea repugnant. Using sulfur dioxide to solve an environmental problem? It just doesn’t feel right to them. Of course, the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun didn’t initially feel right either. Nor did the assertion that the Earth might in fact be round and not flat.

L&D would have you believe that a certain group of people (liberals the Politically Correct, Big Government worshiping, environmentalist, climate science-supporting “chattering classes”) are standing between honest discussion of the merits of the no-brainer geo-engineering fix and the colossal boondoggle of mitigation. L&D- brave, counter-intuitive visionaries that they are- have ridden forth on white steeds to rescue everyone else from the tyranny of those who support reducing greenhouse gas emissions (which is virtually every relevant scientific organization on the planet) and would keep this miracle cure secret.

The only problem with this scenario is that, like much of L&D’s work of late, it’s complete bullshit. It’s a flashy narrative obscuring a much longer, much more complex, much less revolutionary reality in which the real work and discovery is performed not by venture capitalists and their credulous stenographers, but actual scientists doing actual science.

Serious discussion on geo-engineering has gone on for more than a decade (in fact, entire reviews of the history of geo-engineering were published nearly ten years ago):

And geo-engineering isn’t some obscure concept kept alive only by Intellectual Ventures, L&D, and a handful of “scientists outside Seattle”, despite what L&D would have people believe. To the contrary, it’s being discussed now more than ever at the highest levels of the scientific and political communities [all refs published within the last year or so, before the publication of Superfreakonomics and L&D’s claims]:

Moreover, it’s not as though geo-engineering has gone undiscussed in the media. Here is just a sample of recent, in-depth discussions of geo-engineering in major media outlets [again, all recent and published prior to Superfreakonomics and L&D’s claims]:

There are some very good reasons to be wary of engaging in L&D’s vision of geo-engineering. Even if it works flawlessly, it doesn’t address ocean acidification, hydrological cycle disruption , centuries-long commitment or face the built up warming in a matter of decades, etc. And even those who L&D tout as their scientific endorsements like Ken Caldeira and Paul Crutzen believe that geo-engineering is an emergency solution only to be considered after/concomitant with aggressively pursuing mitigation

The truth of the matter is that this is a complex issue demanding more than attending an investment pitch session and calling it done. And rather than presenting a fresh or unconventional take on the subject, L&D are just repackaging the result of decades of research already being considered at the top political and scientific levels as something “new”.

The idea that a cheap, effective, fast solution to the climate problem which doesn’t depend on greenhouse gas reductions is just sitting out there unexamined is absurd on its face, which is why L&D had to invent their tinfoil narrative of geo-engineering somehow being kept from public discourse by the mighty Political Correctness/Greenie Lobby. I’m almost embarrassed for L&D. They could have just admitted that they shot their mouths off about something they were clearly ignorant of and issued an update or correction to their book. It might be a blow to their perceived credibility, such as it is, but at least they’d show themselves to be serious writers who are more interested in getting things right than giving others the impression they’re in possession of some unconventional wisdom everyone else lacks.

Apparently L&D have decided against the sane, honorable path, and are instead engaging in a media blitz that is an unstable blend of careful walk-back (note their present denial of their book’s cooling claims) and attack on those who had the temerity to suggest they said anything wrong in the first place- all the while still maintaining that geo-engineering is every bit as Awesome as they wrote about in Superfreakonomics.

In Part Two, I plan on addressing the actual scientific merits of L&D’s favored geo-engineering solution, as well as its drawbacks.

Oceans and Freshwater Reservoirs, and Geo-engineering


15 responses to “The Freakonomics solution to finding yourself in a hole

  1. Pingback: Wonk Room » Inslee Slams SuperFreakonomics For ‘Absolute Deception’ On Climate Science

  2. Pingback: FAIL: Superfreakonomics « Left as an Exercise

  3. Nice job, it’s amazing how brazen their self-defense efforts have been. They must think no one will actually refer back to what they actually said in the book.

  4. In your discussion you may be leaving out the human factor. Probably when the effects of global warming become more apparent, and people are losing their houses or livelihoods, the political will for a geo-engineering solution will be overwhelming. Yes, there are serious side effects. But when has the fear of side effects stopped a cancer patient from taking chemotherapy? If the seas become fishless due to acidification, let people eat beef. Collapsing civilizations resort to desperate measures when things get tough.
    Geoengineering is here to stay. It’s not a solution, or desirable, but it’s likely be used. Especially by some nation that is strong enough not to care what the international implications may be. The only positive I can see is that it may buy us a little time.


  5. Two laymen who have no idea what they can easily fix global warming? What could possibly go wrong? Reminds me of these Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, posted here:

  6. Pingback: Rep. Jay Inslee slams SuperFreakonomics: “People are still trying to write books to deceive the American public” on climate science. | Climate Vine

  7. Pingback: Rep. Jay Inslee slams SuperFreakonomics: “People are still trying to write books to deceive the American public” on climate science. | Going Green

  8. The problem with global geo-engineering is that it requires fleets of black helicopters. It is a global solution that requires a global government. That will go over real well with those currently pushing it.

  9. Pingback: Ouch … more Superfreakonomic Uber-Pwnage (all sorts) « Greenfyre’s

  10. Oh the schadenfruende keeps getting better !

    Good news, ladies. You, too, can make millions by
    charging for sex! And you’ll just have a slam-bang, gee-
    golly splendiferous time doing it, too — at least if
    you absolutely adore the sort of men who pay for it. Be
    warned, however: Disliking those men will consign you to
    the minimum-wage ranks of sex professionals, forever
    longing for the big bucks you could be earning, had you
    only an appropriately chipper attitude.

    Such is the advice of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner,
    of Freakonomics fame…. — snip–

  11. Yeah, but if you read to the end:


    “… What we have is the word of two best-selling authors, which has been edited into book … it seems unlikely the authors bore no agenda in their interviews – or that Allie, a woman whose job is to figure out what men want from her, was unaware of it.

    It’s entirely possible that, faced with a couple of men who very clearly wanted one specific version of her story, she sized them up and did the same thing for them that she did for all her other clients. That is to say, she told them what they wanted to hear.”
    —- end excerpt —-

    Or, of course, that when they sent her the rough draft, she was in a hurry for some reason and f*ed up and failed to correct a misstatement.

    How could one ever know?

  12. Worth followup, somewhere, sometime:

    Jim Bouldin (

    wrote in part:

    “tonight I flipped on Charlie Rose, and lo and behold there they were! …. Dubner just starts in on air pollution and says scientists are now realizing that, over the last few decades, the cleaning up of the air via air pollution regulations, has allowed much more light to reach the surface, and that it is this, rather than CO2 increases, that is causing global warming. No qualification whatsoever. No response or correction or additions from Levitt. NO further questions or interrogation of this statement by Rose. He just flat out denied greenhouse gas forcing, in favor of reduced particulates over the last 30 years, as the cause of global warming….”

    The thread is being improved on by a couple of economics-minded people who are backing up huge dump truck loads of text and unloading them in the thread, so it’s easy to lose track of the shorter-winded commenters; Jim said he posted something at the F-site; I think I found the info about the interview and posted it later:

    Episode #15228 Duration: 56:47 CC Stereo TVRE
    (original broadcast date: 11/11/09)
    * Malcolm Gladwell
    * Authors of ‘Superfreakonomics’ Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

    This might be online somewhere to listen to; haven’t found it. I did find out that Levitt is definitely a freshwater economist.

  13. Pingback: Inslee slams SuperFreakonomics for ‘absolute deception’ on climate science. | No Bull. news service.

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