Climate Change Chapter Is Not the First Fakery From Freakonomics

Fans of Freakonomics economist Steven Levitt (and his journalistic partner, Stephen Dubner) might well have been surprised to hear about Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm’s devastating debunking (10/12/09) of the climate change nonsense in the duo’s new book, Superfreakonomics. Romm points out wacky assertions in the bestselling authors’ sequel, like this passage they quote approvingly from former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold:

The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12 percent gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat–which contributed to global warming.

It’s as if the premise of solar panels is that they don’t absorb as much heat from the Sun as coal-burning plants, and Myhrvold has discovered that because they’re black (actually, they’re usually blue) this won’t work. In reality, of course, the actual advantage of solar panels over coal-burning plants is that they don’t burn coal.

That’s a kooky thing to put in a book. But even worse is Levitt and Dubner’s misrepresentation of actual climate scientist Ken Caldeira, of whom the authors say, “His research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight” (against global warming). Caldeira actually calls for outlawing devices that release carbon into the atmosphere, saying: “I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies…. It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.”

It’s surprising that bestselling authors who have written regularly for the New York Times Magazine would get a story so ridiculously wrong–but maybe it shouldn’t be. When the original Freakonomics came out, University of Michigan economist John DiNardo wrote a review (American Law and Economics Review, Fall/06) that pointed out that the book misrepresented a study that was cited as substantiation for one of Levitt’s more controversial claims: that legalizing abortion led to lower crime rates. Citing a study by Cristian Pop-Eleches of children born after Romania banned abortion, Levitt and Dubner wrote:

Compared to Romanian children born just a year earlier, the cohort of children born after the abortion ban would do worse in every measurable way: they would test lower in school, they would have less success in the labor market, and they would also prove much more likely to become criminals.

But in the actual study cited by Freakonomics, Pop-Eleches wrote:

On average, children born in 1967 just after abortions became illegal display better educational and labor market achievements than children born just prior to the change. This outcome can be explained by a change in the composition of women having children: urban, educated women were more likely to have abortions prior to the policy change, so a higher proportion of children were born into urban, educated households.

DiNardo has pointed out (though he does not do so in the version published in the American Law and Economics Review) that Pop-Eleches found that if you correct for demographic characteristics, children born after the abortion ban did less well than those born before, but this is very different from saying that the cohort did worse; DiNardo noted (quoting Pop-Eleches) that the study indicated that “the positive effect due to changes in the composition of mothers having children more than outweighs all the other negative effects that such a restriction might have had.”

Levitt actually responded to diNardo’s criticism in a snide blog post (Freakonomics blog, 2/6/08), which quoted Freakonomics‘ claim about the cohort doing worse, quoted Pop-Eleches’ finding about outcomes after “controlling for…observable background variables,” then deceptively concluded, “Sounds to me like Freakonomics and Pop-Eleches are saying the same thing”–ignoring the part where Pop-Eleches found that the cohort actually did better, thus giving readers no clue as to what DiNardo’s actual complaint about Levitt’s use of the paper was. (“C’mon, John, you’re a top economist, and our book is 300 pages long. You must have better criticisms than that!” Levitt snarked. Well, yeah–most criticism sounds better when you actually explain it.)

This dishonest response to criticism foreshadowed Levitt’s similarly slippery response (Freakonomics blog, 10/17/09) to Joe Romm’s critique–see Climate Progress, 10/17/09. Maybe the climate change chapter from Superfreakonomics isn’t an aberration–maybe people are just catching on to Levitt’s smartest-guy-in-the-room act.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.