On Monday, The New Yorker published Elizabeth Kolbert’s lengthy review of SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. In her 2400-word review, titled “Hosed: Is there a quick fix for the climate?” she writes:
Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is a climatologist who, like Levitt, teaches at the University of Chicago. In a particularly scathing critique, he composed an open letter to Levitt, which he posted on the blog RealClimate.
On Friday, coauthor Stephen Dubner replied in a post titled, “With Geoengineering Outlawed, Will Only Outlaws Have Geoengineering?“ Notwithstanding the title, the piece is clearly meant to be serious. Here is what they have to say about Kolbert’s review:
And for a great illustration of just how repugnant some environmentalists find the very thought of geoengineering, consider this scathing review of our book in The New Yorker. The author, Elizabeth Kolbert, seems to disdain everything we’ve ever written on any topic, and claims we utterly fail to understand climate science (unless of course we don’t). She is a feeling and passionate environmentalist who, seemingly so disturbed by geongineering, is compelled to cast our own horse-dung story right back at us with a splat. Here is my favorite line from the review: “Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science — or, for that matter, in science of any kind.”
The time has probably come to admit that neither of us were Ku Klux Klan members either, or sumo wrestlers or Realtors or abortion providers or schoolteachers or even pimps. And yet somehow we managed to write about all that without any horse dung (well, not much at least) flying our way. Kolbert, meanwhile, has written widely about the perils of global warming, both in The New Yorker and in book form (see Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change), and seems to be extremely well-regarded in the field of environmental journalism. And yet, if her Wikipedia page is correct, she somehow accomplished all this with a degree from Yale in … literature.
Snap. Or not.
Note how Kolbert is pigeonholed as an “environmentalist,” albeit a “feeling and passionate” one, since that allows her to be lumped in with all the other environmentalists who supposedly find geo-engineering repugnant — as opposed to, say, climatologist Ken Caldeira who merely finds the geo-engineering-only solution that the authors propose in their book unworkable and “pretty ugly” and “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story” and “crazy.“ Kolbert herself notes:
There are eminent scientists—among them the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen—who argue that geoengineering should be seriously studied, but only with the understanding that it represents a risky, last-ditch attempt to avert catastrophe. “By far the preferred way” to confront climate change, Crutzen has written, “is to lower the emissions of greenhouse gases.”
You can read the interview she gave and decide if that makes here “a feeling and passionate environmentalist” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — or simply a journalist who has talked to dozens of the leading climate scientists and visited many of the places where the climate is changing the most and reported on what she heard, saw, and learned.
Indeed, Kolbert’s point about credentials is almost exactly the opposite of what Dubner implies in his dismissal of her:
Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science—or, for that matter, in science of any kind. It’s their contention that they don’t need it. The whole conceit behind “SuperFreakonomics” and, before that, “Freakonomics,” which sold some four million copies, is that a dispassionate, statistically minded thinker can find patterns and answers in the data that those who are emotionally invested in the material will have missed….
Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong.
Their credentials aren’t the issue for her. They simply didn’t do their homework, and so they got the science all wrong (as many, many others have pointed out). Hence her quote of Pierrehumbert.
Their dismissive reply to her substantive critique is another attempted aerosol smokescreen, just as Levitt’s reply to Pierrehumbert on RealClimate was:
I enjoyed your intentional misreading of my chapter on global warming! I think it has really contributed to moving towards a solution to these important problems….
Steve, glad to see you’re reading this.
Something I have found rather bizarre about your responses to the criticisms of your climate chapter is the way you continually try to change history about what you actually wrote, which is plainly there for anybody to see. I found it so unbelievable that you included the “black solar cell” meme when I first heard it that I actually went over to Borders and stood there and intentionally read (not misread) the chapter to see if it was true.
Kolbert ended the review:
To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.
You don’t need to be a climatologist to know that.