Previous: Berserk Vol. #31

Hot Air Dept.

Some of you might know Levitt & Dunbar's Freakonomics, a book in something of the Tipping Poing / Black Swan vein. The book's premise, since expanded into a regular New York Times feature, is that the economics of things are often counterintuitive and unintended consequences are a way of life.

Now they have a follow-up, entitled SuperFreakonomics, one chapter of which deals with global climate change, and it's ticking people off. Not because it's zinging those stuffed-shirt know-it-all scientists, but because it's grievously wrong in basic factual ways.

For one, it's ticking off Ken Caldeira, one of the very climate scientists L&D consulted for the book. He's livid because they took a great deal of what he said out of context, and turned his urging for rapid action on climate change into a wait-and-see approach. ("It is essentially immoral for us to be making devices (automobiles, coal power plants, etc) that use the atmosphere as a sewer for our waste products." Emphasis mine.)

Paul Krugman was also dismayed by what he read. He took the additional step of going back to the papers referenced by L&D and seeing what they actually said, and also found a good deal of misquotation or outright distortion. He was disgusted by the book's contrarian, everything-you-know-is-wrong approach — which is okay when you're dealing with relatively trivial issues like media punditry, but not when you're talking about an issue this, well, global. Other people have also weighed in and found the book seriously wanting.

Someone else (I can't find the reference right now) mentioned that this sort of thing happens when you have people who are not scientists per se, or who haven't bothered to learn much about how science works, weighing in on scientific issues. Then again, it's not as if they're appealing to an audience that is all that scientifically literate anyway. They seem to think science is a matter of scoring easy points and clever debating tactics, not assessing what the evidence indicates. And the vast weight of the evidence we have to date shows us that raising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is a Really Bad Idea.

I was similarly annoyed with the vaccination-paranoia crowd (yes, Bill Maher, I'm talking about you), or the people who were convinced the Large Hadron Collider was going to create an earth-swallowing black hole for the same reasons. They clearly didn't understand what the LHC was doing, or why, or to what end, or how black holes are formed in the first place.

And they didn't care. They were speaking from their fears, much as other people are compelled to speak from their smugness or their ignorance. They believe that speaking from fear and ignorance gives their words the legitimacy of fact — especially when their audience is listening for the same reasons. That's like a guy dealing with the low gas gauge in his car by taping it to the "F" position and driving even faster.

Tags: dharma links science

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Previous: Berserk Vol. #31

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2009/10/17 17:41.

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