Monday, October 19, 2009

Dubner, Krugman and DeLong

In the post below (circular linking here) I display absolutely astounding itnorance (for example I didn't know Steve Dubner's last name). At the same time, I guess at a possible response to accusations that Dubner and Steve Levitt distorted the meaning of statements by Ken Caldeira in their book Superfreakonomics. I noted that one could argue that statements were presented which support a conclusion different from Caldeira's final conclusion. That would not be removal of necessary context. That would be removal of other independent statements. Caldeira's views on what we should do are informed not only by his knowledge about the climate but also by his values. He is both a scientist and a citizen. One can use and share his knowledge without sharing his priorities or his conclusions.

Now Dubner claims that he has a quote from Caldeira in which Caldeira said exactly what I said except about one line in the book (which I carelessly didn't consider in my previous very ignorant blog post).

I quote Dubner

Caldeira then sent along another, more recent e-mail he’d written to a British journalist who asked for comment on his portrayal in SuperFreakonomics. “I believe all of the ideas attributed to me are based on fact, with the exception of the ‘carbon dioxide is not the right villain’ line,” he wrote. “That said, when I am speaking, I place these facts in a very different context and draw different policy conclusions.” He added that “I believe the authors to have worked in good faith. They draw different conclusions than I draw from the same facts, but as authors of the book, that is their prerogative.”


Note Dubner claims he has an e-mail from Caldeira.

Now if this seems clear to me in spite of my total ignorance, why were so many people willing to assert that Dubner and Levitt distorted the meaning of quotations by removing context ? I was working from Joe Romm's post and therefore a few scattered quotes from Superfreakonomics. Dubner asserts that Romm's quotes from the chapter give a misleading impression of the general thrust of the chapter. He presents his own quotes of his book in a way which makes support that accusation.

I will wait till I read Romm's response to Dubner's criticism of Romms criticism of Levitt and Dubner before even considering drawing any conclusions and besides who should care what I think.

Before moving on, I note that the question of distortion of the meaning of quotes of Caldeira is very narrow compared to the question of whether the chapter is irresponsible garbage.

Paul Krugman comments on Dubner's self defence. He doesn't address the issue of whether or not Dubner and Levitt distorted the meaning of quotes of Caldeira (other than the "right enemy" line which wasn't a quote and was an incorrect assertion).

Krugman does argue that the chapter is full of errors. That is a separate issue. Most solar cells aren't black. Waste heat produced along with electricity is a trivial issue. The few scientists who worried about global cooling in the 70s are not worth mentioning even as part of a general interest study of the history of thought. etc etc etc. Dubner doesn't actually even try to defend the chapter as a whole. I certainly didn't. I was interested in the question of misleading quotations and I am even more interested now.

On another issue Krugman's comment on the S02 stratosheild shows that "might" makes right

"Having somebody — who? The United States? The United Nations? The Coalition of the Willing? — pump sulfur into the atmosphere through an 18-mile tube, or cut off sunlight with a giant orbital mirror, would either (a) require many years of hard negotiations or (b) quite possibly set off World War III."

I would consider the probability that World War III starts because the USA is pumping S02 up into the stratosphere to be very low. The weasel phrase "quite possibly" allows Krugman to make an absurd alarmist argument without risk. In the unimaginable case that the probability can be quantified and turns out to be one in a quintillion, he can say that a one in a quintillion probability is certainly a possibility.

Given the cost of the project, The US can easily do it alone. So can Luxembourg.

Krugman essentially contradicts himself in the sentence. He notes that a coordinated effort to do anything about global warming involves years of negotiations. For example, we are currently spewing huge amounts of C02 and methane into the atmosphere endangering the world. That is terrible, but not likely to cause World War III. Why would spewing S02 into the stratosphere be different ?

I'd say it is quite possible that Krugman feels no responsibility to think before typing something provided he includes "quite possibly" in the sentence.

Aside from the fear that the stratoshield will lead to active missions for stratofortresses, I share the views expressed by Krugman. I agree with his maine assertions: that the topic of Dubner's post (and my ignorant post) is not important and that, even if Joe Romm is totally wrong about the quotes, the chapter is irresponsible and full of errors.

Brad DeLong has the chapter. He has a long list of alleged errors. I find his claims very convincing. None relate to quotes of Caldeira. Only one is related to Caldeira "p. 184: Change to remove false claim: 'Yet [Ken Caldeira's] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.'"
Dubner agrees that this claim should be removed.

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