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.