Error-riddled 'SuperFreakonomics,' Part 5
n SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner write of Ken Caldeira (page 184), “Yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.” What he really believes, as he wrote me last weekend, is:
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.
Caldeira, the primary climatologist Superfreakonomics relies on, has himself updated his website (click here) to debunk the book’s characterization of his views. He puts under his picture the following quote:
“Carbon dioxide is the right villain,” says Caldeira, “insofar as inanimate objects can be villains.”
I noted in Part 1 that Ken Caldeira, wrote me last weekend:
If you talk all day, and somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context because they want to make a provocative and controversial chapter, there is not much you can do. The standard way to protect against this, of course, is to give short interviews.
Another thing they said that was misleading (out of many) is that….
Oh, you’ll have to tune in later for that mistake. For now, I just wanted to make clear that Caldeira does think these guys misrepresented him and made many misleading statements. He also wrote me:
So, yes, my representation in the Superfreakonomics book is damaging to me because it is an inaccurate portrayal of me. The problem is the inaccurate portrayal, not my actions or statements.
The well-known Berkeley economics professor and blogger J. Bradford DeLong has begun his multiple takedowns of SuperFreakonomics. In one headline, he echoes a query from TNR’s Brad Plummer, Does “Superfreakonomics” Need A Do-Over?
DeLong also prints an email from Dubner, which I excerpt:
It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm’s extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value… He makes it sound as if we somehow twisted and abused Caldeira’s research; nothing could be further from the truth…. This is politics that’s being played now, nothing else. Also: yes, Romm posted a PDF of the chapter on his website, which the publisher, in its routine effort to pull pirated copies of its copyrighted material off the web, asked him to take down. As far as I know, it was never on Amazon; there’s been no censoring; we are talking about a book that hasn’t yet been published (when it is, I assume Amazon will post the searchable pages, as is typical), but Romm has done a great job of getting people to believe that a book they haven’t read is full of errors.
So if I adopted the Superfreak’s approach to quoting people, then I would say, as I did in the headline of the earlier version of this post, Dubner says “Romm has done a great job” with his critiques. But you’re not allowed to do that in a blog or a book, are you?
For the record, I don’t support such journalism — I will, however, mock people who regularly and egregiously do. Indeed, on complex matters I try to run quotes by the person I’m interviewing, which, frankly about half the journalists who quote me also do. I asked Caldeira if I could quote his emails and he wrote me, “I assume when I send you things, you can quote them unless I specifically say otherwise.”
UPDATE: Caldeira wrote me what he wrote me. I did ask him for a quote that the Superfreaks had misrepresented his views — because I knew very well that they had based on my previous emails with him on geo-engineering. It is exceedingly common in regular journalism to ask people for a quote that makes a very specific point — I’ve been asked many times by reporters to do similar things.
Note, the “villain” quote isn’t only a piece of the biggest misrepresentation the Superfreaks make of Caldeira’s work. The bigger point is that Caldeira simply doesn’t believe in the geoengineering-only strategy they are pushing. Over the course of our emails, it became clear he didn’t get the final version from the Superfreaks but from Nathan Myhrvold. I wrote Caldeira:
Are you telling me that the authors did not send you galleys for comment but you got them third hand from Nathan?
He wrote me back:
That is correct, not the entire chapter, but a section was forwarded to me by Nathan. I searched through it quickly, looking for the parts that discussed me, and did not give the whole process very much attention at the time. In general I feel no need to read, fact check, or make detailed comments on documents that arrive in my in-box. I have lots of other things to do, like trying to get my science out the door.
He told me he objected to this line, “And yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight” writing a comment directly at the end of their text on this line:
My views differ significantly from Lowell’s and Nathan’s. I do think we are being incredibly foolish emitting CO2 and that avoiding all of this environmental risk is a good way to invest a few percent of our GDP. My pessimism stems from the apparent difficulties of solving the “prisoner’s dilemma”, “tragedy of the commons”, type aspects of this problem.
He didn’t think that got back to Dubner, but it did. Dubner now claims Caldeira was just making a “qualification.” He was clearly disputing the line. Dubner just really, really wanted to leave it in (it’s also in the table of contents) so they did:
The bigger point is that Caldeira does NOT believe in the geo-engineering-only strategy the Superfreaks are pushing, as I discussed in Part 1. This is what he really believes:
If we keep emitting greenhouse gases with the intent of offsetting the global warming with ever increasing loadings of particles in the stratosphere, we will be heading to a planet with extremely high greenhouse gases and a thick stratospheric haze that we would need to main more-or-less indefinitely. This seems to be a dystopic world out of a science fiction story. First, we can assume the oceans have been heavily acidified with shellfish and corals largely a thing of the past. We can assume that ecosystems will be greatly affected by the high CO2 / low sunlight conditions — similar to what Earth experienced hundreds of millions years ago. The sunlight would likely be very diffuse — maybe good for portrait photography, but with unknown c
onsequences for ecosystems.
This episode is a cautionary tale for all scientists (including me). By the way, I think the standard of practice should be much higher for a book because the production process is much slower. I can understand why a blogger or even a print reporter might not always feel he or she has time to check with the original source. You’re writing at such a fast clip. But you have weeks if not months to run an entire book chapter by an original source.
Finally, to get to the rest of my headline, you’ll note that Dubner whines that people are criticizing his book without having read it. Well, let’s see, his publisher made me take down the PDF of the chapter — which is certainly fully within its rights. And then, yes, the book was searchable on Amazon for a number of days. I checked many of the pages in the chapter I was sent against the online version and twice told readers they could search the book to check my claim. So this statement by Dubner is false:
As far as I know, it was never on Amazon; there’s been no censoring; we are talking about a book that hasn’t yet been published (when it is, I assume Amazon will post the searchable pages, as is typical)
Yes, “As far as I know” is a great Nixonian hedge, like “to the best of my knowledge.” Thing is, Dubner could have checked this.
If I had ever imagined that Amazon would take down the book’s searchability, I would have done a screen capture. If any readers searched it last week, let me know.
DeLong replied to Dubner:
Brad DeLong to Stephen
Re: “It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm’s extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value…”
As I said, I can’t read your chapter–by your publisher’s choice.
That’s very bad for you: Romm’s posting your chapter and a link to it is a way for him to establish credibility–”see for yourself”; your publisher’s pulling it down is a way to diminish yours.
Now that DeLong can read parts of it, he ain’t thrilled.
I hope some other journalists interview Caldeira, so he can directly set the record straight, but you wouldn’t blame him if he were a bit gun shy with reporters right now, would you? I’ll publish more of my so far exclusive interview with him in a day or two.
More on this from Wonk Room.
[Note: This is a revised earlier version of this post based on the “breaking” news from Caldeira.]
- Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’: New book pushes global cooling myths, sheer illogic, and “patent nonsense” — and the primary climatologist it relies on, Ken Caldeira, says “it is an inaccurate portrayal of me” and “misleading” in “many” places.
- Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’, Part 2: Who else have Nathan Myhrvold and the Groupthinkers at Intellectual Ventures duped and confused? Would you believe Bill Gates and Warren Buffett?
- Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’, Part 3: It takes a village to debunk their anti-scientific nonsense, but why did they stop Amazon from allowing text searches?
- Error-riddled Superfreakonomics, Part 4: They get the economics dead wrong, too, and their response to critics is full of misrepresentations, just like their book
Get Grist in your inbox