The blogosphere is abuzz over Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s Superfreakonomics, published in the US and Britain tomorrow. The book, subtitled Global cooling, patriotic prostitutes and why suicide bombers should buy life insurance, is the sequel to their 1996 bestseller Freakonomics and shares its irreverent approach to economics. While it has earned a few positive early reviews, such as Tim Harford’s in the FT (our arts & books editor Tom Chatfield reviews the book in Prospect‘s forthcoming November issue), the fuss centres over the last chapter on global warming. US blog Climate Progress flipped its lid with a post calling the book “error-ridden” with “many, many pieces of outright nonsense.” (The blog’s analysis continues in parts 2, 3, 4 and 5.) Real Climate debunked the global cooling myth and economist Paul Krugman—who like Dubner and Levitt, blogs for the New York Times—chipped in with criticisms too.
The book’s authors have come out swinging. Dubner posted a lengthy response yesterday, making the point that neither he or Levitt are climate change deniers and wouldn’t have devoted a chapter of Superfreakonomics to global warming if they were. Yet, even so, it seems as if they have not done their homework on the science. So what went wrong? Well, as Paul Krugman says:
At first glance, though, what it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous. Ann Coulter is making sense! Bush is good for the environment! You get the idea.
In the Washington Post‘s blog, Ezra Klein makes a similar point over a different claim in the book. But, of course, Levitt and Dubner aren’t the only writers who like counterintuitiveness. The New Yorker‘s Malcolm Gladwell, whose new collection What the Dog Saw is also published tomorrow, shares that trait. One of Gladwell’s recent articles, an attack on the politics of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, provoked a similarly hostile reaction in the blogosophere. Not coincidentally, both Gladwell and Levitt/Dubner write highly entertaining and bestselling books.
Journalists shouldn’t be throwing stones at this particular glass house. (Nor should Prospect—Bush is a Truman for our times. Ahem.) As the saying goes, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. But what works in an opinion column doesn’t necessarily translate into a more academic discipline. A few years ago, the New Republic‘s Noam Scheiber lamented the effects of Freakonomics-style research on the economics profession. Has the fashion for counter-intuitive arguments gone too far? And if so, could this row be a possible turning point?