Media Mayhem: High noon for 'SuperFreakonomics'
The bestseller’s flawed climate arguments show that maverick heroes aren’t right about everything.
Mon, Nov 23 2009 at 8:08 AM
MAN OF CONTROVERSY: Journalist and 'Freakonomics' co-author Stephen Dubner. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
High Noon is the greatest American movie ever made. You are free to disagree with me. But, of course, you’d be sadly mistaken.
The 1952 Western tells the story of retiring Marshal Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) who marries a fetching bride (Grace Kelly) just before he and the people of Hadleyville learn that vicious criminals are about to descend upon the town. Frank Miller and his gang plan to take revenge on the marshal and others for sending Miller to the state penitentiary five years earlier.
But the townspeople don’t have the guts to stand up to the outlaws. Kane stands alone. Even his bride appears to forsake him. And as the clock ticks towards high noon — when a train carrying Miller is scheduled to arrive — the tension mounts.
Marshal Kane is a classic American hero. When conventional wisdom says “run,” he holds to his principles. His willingness not to be swayed by the easy choices of others is what makes him even more of an icon.
Most of us like to think we’ve got a little of Will Kane inside us, which is what brings me to the two authors of Freakonomics and their more recent bestseller, SuperFreakonomics. Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner have built a franchise out of playing intellectual marshals against the conventional mob. They aren’t afraid to say, “Wait a second. Let’s look at it this way ..."
Yes, the risks they face are very different from those of cowboy lawmen who dodge bullets by tumbling off galloping steeds and rolling up with six-guns blazing. Dubner and Levitt have been well-rewarded for their boldness. Freakonomics has sold more than 4 million copies. As of this writing, SuperFreakonomics ranked #2 on the New York Times bestseller list. And Levitt and Dubler have a too-die-for gig writing an entertaining blog for the Times. Like The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, they’ve parlayed their iconoclastic bestsellers into an industry; in marketing parlance, they are a brand.
Their shtick is to use “the economic approach” to argue unexpected, usually contrarian hypotheses. And their credibility lies partly in allowing the chips to fall where they may — not neatly onto one side of the political spectrum. In an e-mail to me, Dubner said their methods entail "thinking about incentives, using data, paying attention to causality more than simply correlation, trying to factor out emotion and moral overweighting, etc. So yes, while this approach may yield iconoclastic or at least counterintuitive results, that's not the goal per se. ... [T]he goal isn't to assert some shocking new factor ...”
In other words, they’re not lazy, false prophets like say, Glenn Beck, who acts courageous while simply confirming the easy answers at one end of the political spectrum.
So, it’s a bit more uncomfortable for environmentalists to read that the Freakonomics duo is taking on the conventional wisdom of the climate-change crowd than it is when the likes of Beck and Rush Limbaugh spout their conspiracy theories. At the same time, it seems to me that Dubner underplays the extent to which provocative arguments are prerequisites in the Freakonomics formula.
SuperFreakonomics is subtitled “Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.” Use of the term “Global Cooling” alone gives credence to a story line favored by the climate-change denial crowd — that a short-lived cooling hypothesis shared by a handful of scientists in the 1970s is anything like today’s global scientific consensus over global warming.
The provocative title of SuperFreakonomics’ chapter on climate change — “What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?” — goes a step further. The implication that the uber climate activist spouts volcanic hot air can’t be lost on the reader.
But real heat in environmentalist outrage has been aimed at their supposed research. Levitt and Dubner argue that “geoengineering” may hold more promise in combating climate change than would a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. The duo gives a lot of ink to the very dubious idea that that humans can best counter global warming by firing vast amounts of aerosols into the upper atmosphere to block heat before it enters, and claims (falsely, as it turns out) that a leading climate scientist says “carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.” They write:
“It’s illogical to believe in a carbon-induced warming apocalypse and believe that such an apocalypse can be averted simply by curtailing new carbon emissions.”
Unlike such novel approaches as explaining a long-term drop in crime by looking at abortion rates from years earlier -- a theory they profer in their first book -- climate change is a thoroughly studied phenomenon. There is no shortage of scientists, and indeed non-scientists, who’ve studied the subject far more thoroughly than Dubner and Levitt ever will.
Unsurprisingly, the two have been dodging verbal bullets since their publisher starting distributing review copies of the new book. The shooting gallery opened with Joe Romm of the popular Climate Progress blog. Last month, Romm offered a point-by-point takedown of the book’s climate arguments, with lengthy headline that hints at the posts’ content:
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.
Dubner responded on his own blog by, among other things, pointing out that Romm suggested a quote to one of the scientists he solicited to criticize Dubner. Then a slew of other journalists and environmental writers piled on to hammer the arguments in SuperFreakonomics. Among them: NYT columnist (and Nobel Prize winning economist) Paul Krugman and Bloomberg columnist Eric Pooley. They accused the duo of misrepresenting scientific research in the interest of sensationalism. Romm devoted two more harsh lengthy posts to dismantling Levitt and Dubner’s arguments.
It seems to me, however, that climate activists make a mistake when they respond to Dubner and Levitt with the same level of indignation with which they attach the climate change denial crowd. They are different. Yes, it’s frustrating that we’re so far behind where we need to be in addressing climate change. The disinformation campaign of know-nothings and special interests has polarized the debate so much that simplistic but less-than-nefarious descriptions of the issue are treated as part of the same vast right-wing conspiracy. The result is that the debate becomes more polarized, and many people in the middle see climate activists as unbalanced zealots.
Both in terms of intellectual rigor and basic honesty, there’s a big difference between the Freakonomics franchise and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue— the book that most likely will have surpassed SuperFreakonomics on the bestsellers’ list by the time this column is published. It may not be surprising that the subtitle for the first Freakonomics book points to Levitt as “a rogue economist”; both in Palin’s case and in Levitt’s, “rogue” was a great adjective for book sales.
But the climate change denial and outright lies engaged in by industry interests and right-wing activists aren’t the same as the sensational simplifications of SuperFreakonomics. If anything, Levitt and Dubner place on display the power of a deeper force in American culture — the myth that courageous iconoclasts automatically stand against the establishment as beacons for what is right and true.
Maybe, we have Hollywood to blame for that. Maybe, it goes back a lot further. But a forgotten message within the greatest American movie also offers guidance into what’s missing when we simply worship the idea of being boldly independent.
It turns out that — aside from the great acting, wonderful script and inventive camera work — High Noon was an intricate metaphor for Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. The criminal gang is meant to be a stand-in for McCarthy and other politicians who bullied people into fingering each other. The townsfolk are the ordinary people who stood by while the red scare continued. And Marshal Kane was that rare person who was willing to sacrifice to do what was right.
He was a bit like screenwriter Carl Foreman. While writing the script for High Noon, Foreman was called before the U.S. House Un-American Committee and then blacklisted for refusing to testify against friends who’d done nothing illegal.
He didn’t work in Hollywood again — “going rogue” in his case didn’t mean ending up on the bestsellers’ list.
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