Saturday, October 17, 2009

Defending Superfreakonomic's

update 2: I want to stress that the post below was an off the top of my head brain dump. Notably I spelled Dubner "Dunbar" in the original post so below: no research, no thought, just typing. I never imagined that Mark Thoma would link to this post. That event demonstrates the dangerous temptations of contrarianism. Since almost no one has anything nice to say chapter V of superfreakonomics, Thoma decided to link to the post below to be fair to the Steves.

Update 3: The title of this post is wrong. It should be "defending superfreakonomics from the accusation that it distorted the meaning of quotations of Ken Caldeira by removing necessary context." That's all it's about.

Steve Dubner knows more about the issues than I do (for example I'm sure he rarely misspells his own name). He wrote a post vaguely similar to the post below except that he knows how to write correct English and he knows lots of relevant facts about what Caldeira said to him including what Caldeira e-mailed him after the controversy exploded.

I have another post on the topic.

end of update.

I am going to argue with reviews of a book which I haven't read. Also I am going enter a debate in which I am as expert as the average manhole cover.

In Superfreakonomics, Steves Levitt and Dubner present a contrarian argument against regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The consensus of the blogosphere appears to be that they are totally utterly unbelievably wrong.

Some valid criticisms have been made. For example Matt Yglesias presents photographic proof that not all photovoltaic cells are black as asserted by the Steves.

However, his other claim -- that Levitt and Dubner distorted the meaning of quotes by removing context and, effectively, misquoted their sources -- is not so well supported.

Source Ken Caldeira does make that accusation

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.

But, you know, people often say they were quoted out of context when the meaning of their statement was not distorted by removal of context.

Tim Lambert makes the case at much more length. I am really not qualified to summarize his critiques, so just click the link.

On removal of context, Lambert repeatedly notes that the sources do not agree with Levitt and Dubner's policy recomendations. This does *not* mean that the meaning of their statements were distorted by removal of context.

For example, lets say Joe Chickenhawk says "I admit that 4,259 US service people have been killed in the war in Iraq, but it was worth it" and I write "According to Joe Chickenhawk, 4,259 US service people have been killed in the war in Iraq" I have not distorted the meaning of the quoted statement by removing context. I have quoted a statement of fact and neglected to quote another statement on the same subject. The fact remains a fact with or without the context that Joe Chickenhawk still thinks invading was a good idea.

The objections made by Levitt and Dubner's sources appear to me to be of the form: I disagree with Levitt and Dubner's policy recomendation, therefore the meaning of my quoted statement which they use to support their conclusion was distorted by removal of context. This follows only if one assumes that no one ever admits to a fact (or argument or whatever) which tends to weaken the conclusion that they, in the end and on balance accept. In short, quoting people who disagree with your conclusion must be intellectually dishonest if those people are totally intellectually dishonest. From the examples given by Lambert, I don't see any sign that anyone involved was dishonest at all (and I mean also in the objections to the quotes which note only that context was removed and do not assert that meanings were distorted by removal of context).

Another way of putting it is that Caldeira etc have two roles in the debate. On the one hand, Caldeira is an expert who has well a lot more to say about C02 fertilization that I do. On the other hand, he is a citizen with priorities and he cares more about protecting the environment and less about making the gross national product as gross as it can be than say George W Bush. As a scientist, he has something to say which is worthy of more attention that anything I have to say on that topic (oh hell or any other for that matter). As a citizen, he is just one citizen. If Levitt and Dubner find the science of Dr Caldeira interesting and important but don't share the priorities of citizen Caldeira, it is perfectly reasonable for them to quote the statements about science and not mention the final policy recommendation which is based on scientific knowledge and priorities.

Now I share Caldeira's priorities, but that doesn't mean I think that the meaning of his statements about science were distorted by the removal of his discussion of optimal policy. Well actually, he seems a bit extreme. He wants to ban automobiles which strikes me as going a bit too far -- tax sure ban uhm well uhm maybe.

update: spelling of Dubner corrected thanks to Ezzie in comments.


Ezzie said...

I'm not sure why I'm commenting on this post, seeing as you couldn't check enough to get Dubner's name right . . . but in any event, did you read the Lambert article you cited to?

They're not just citing Caldeira or Crutzer for evidence supporting end results C&C dislike - they're repeatedly claiming that Caldeira and Crutzer (or their articles) support L&D's positions that C&C dislike. That's a problem.

"Yet [Ken Caldeira]'s research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight."

Ken Caldeira disagrees. Misrepresentation #1.


"Caldeira's study showed that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide while holding steady all other inputs - water, nutrients and so forth -yields a 70% increase in plant growth, an obvious boon to agricultural productivity."

They leave out the key caveat - that this is only true if co2 fertilization is significant. And thus, they make Caldeira look as if he's agreeing to something much broader than he is. Misleading #2.

Bonus points: They poo-pooed this precise type of modeling as untrustworthy!

"It is one thing for climate heavyweights such as Crutzen and Caldeira to endorse such a solution [geoengineering]."

Caldeira, from the same frickin' paragraph they summarized in the last misrepresentation:

"geoengineering is not a preferred option"

Crutzen similarly doesn't endorse it - to him its the last backup plan if everything else fails.

Its "by far not the best solution," and again "Finally, I repeat: the very best would be" if emissions were reduced and geoengineering need not take place.

There's a wide range between "this is better than abject failure to do anything" and "endorsed!"

I mean, really, would you call this an "endorsement" of John McCain in 2004?

The best solution would be to elect a Democrat. John McCain is by far not the best solution, and the very best option would be for everyone to vote for whoever the Democrats select. However, if those efforts fail, John McCain is better than George W. Bush, and we should try to primary the President. Finally, I repeat: ideally, we elect the Democrat, whoever he is. But if that will not happen, John McCain is better than the President.

Misrepresentations #3 & 4.

Now, the other parts of the list weren't claims that Caldeira was being misrepresented, they were claims that L&D had no f'ing clue what they were talking about.

Robert said...

yes indeed it is odd that you are commenting on my piece given my spelling of Dubner.

I was shocked when Thoma linked to it (look at his comments).

The point of my post (if any) was to define the word "context" and discuss the responsibilities of journalists like Dubner (and in this chapter Levitt).

My question was whether the meaning of quotes was distorted by the removal of context. I do not find quotation marks in the sentence from the book quoted by Lambert and you.

In particular I see no evidence in Lamberts post which supports Caldeira's claim that the book is a case in which "somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context."

Neither Lambert nor Caldeira as quoted by Lambert (nor, as far as I can tell, Romm) provides an example of any such distorted quote.

In your third example, you quote an article by Caldeira. Note Caldera claims that L & D (taking no chances here) distorted the meaning of things he said in an interview. I quote "If you talk all day."

The context of something said in a conversation some day is the rest of the conversation that day. It is not the life work of the person who was talking.

It is not a general rule that journalists such as Mr D are expected to read all publications written by someone they interview and are held responsible if they quote someone saying something which would lead the reader to imagine that that person would not have written what the person once wrote.

Dr Caldeira's accusation is not supported by evidence in Lambert's post. It really couldn't be, since Lambert doesn't have a tape recording of the interview.

That was the only point of my post.

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