November 13, 2009

Execution by Mathmatics

I enjoyed the original Freakonomics when it first came out. Written by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, the book used economic analysis in clever and unexpected ways to expose "the hidden side of everything." Freakonomics made its share of enemies, thanks to its occasionally radical theories, such as suggesting the national decline in Crime seen during the Clinton years was actually due to the legalization of Abortion some twenty years earlier. Levitt and Dubner clearly enjoyed rabble-rousing as a sport. But, the book did successfully challenge conventional wisdom on a wide range of subjects. It was a good, fun read.

After reading the book I followed the Freakonomics Blog for a while, though as time progressed the authors' unconventional wisdom began to look more and more like conventional right-wing claptrap, so I moved on. Flash forward to this year, and the release of Levitt and Dubner's new book. SuperFreakonomics has a key chapter on Climate Change titled, "Global Cooling: What Do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo Have in Common?", which gives you a good sense of where their unconventional wisdom has apparently led them.

Krugman led the charge in attacking the chapter's claims, followed by Brad DeLong. Elizabeth Kolbert has a scathing review in The New Yorker. But all of these pale compared to the takedown done by Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, a Climatologist who teaches at the University of Chicago—that is, the same University where Levitt holds court.

With SuperFreakonomics' at-best-ill-considered Global Cooling chapter, Levitt and Dubner have made perhaps the worst gaffe imaginable: they have not only stepped onto the turf of hard science, they have done so very, very sloppily. While there is a great deal of uncertainty in the study of climate change, there is little to no uncertainty in Freshman mathematics. Writes Pierrehumbert:

"The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense...The point here is that really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, 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."

Pierrehumbert then proceeds to walk Levitt and Dubner through the "really simple arithmetic" in what can only be called an execution by Mathematics. It's not exactly a bloodsport, but if you're like me, you'll be standing up and cheering when Pierrehumbert breaks out the logarithm and really starts kicking some ass. Don't mess with science, jokers! BOO-YAH!

Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow


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