Unforgivable, at least by me

The SuperFreakonomics chapter on global cooling is still being kicked from one end of the blogosphere to another, with error after tired delusionist error being pointed out. Most of the time, it’s just sloppy contrarianism of the type you might expect from people who hang around with rightwingers a lot and are in a rush to produce a controversial book. But there is one point that, coming from Steve Levitt, I find unforgivable. Before pointing it out, I’ll quote what I said about Freakonomics when it came out, in a post entitled “Getting the data to talk

what Levitt has taken from the economics profession is not so much a body of theory to be applied, as a set of tools for empirical analysis and an unflinching willingness to look at social and policy issues without regard to social norms or received wisdom. More importantly, he’s combined all this with creative flair and an impressive capacity to see the right way of teasing compelling conclusions out of refractory data.

Looking back, I still think this judgement stands up as regards Freakonomics, which makes the tragedy of Superfreakonomics all the greater.

Given Levitt’s justified reputation as someone who knows more about data than I ever will, how could he put his name to this?

Then there’s this little-discussed fact about global warming: While the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased.

and defend it by saying, as reported by AP that

he did not do any statistical analysis of temperatures, but “eyeballed” the numbers and noticed 2005 was hotter than the last couple of years.

This is even worse than the usual cherrypicking that takes the massive El Nino of 1998 as a starting point. Here’s a graph of global temperatures since 1980.
climategraph

Someone ignorant of such complex statistical concepts as variance might indeed be tempted to include that temperatures have flattened out over various periods in this data set (from 1983 to 1995, for example). Any competent social or natural scientist should be aware that a trend picked out by a selective choice of start and end dates is meaningless (the fact that a number of people with social or natural science qualifications, including a few who were, at least in the past, notable, have made such claims is a regrettable instance of how standards slip when ideology and wishful thinking get in the way). But Levitt, of all people, can’t claim ignorance as an excuse. And he doesn’t even try to pretend there is a structural break that would justify his cherrypicking. Unsurprisingly, real statisticians (the group to which Levitt formerly belonged) are crying foul.

Granted, this book is just a silly exercise in contrarianism. Still, it’s being presented as a serious piece of work, trading on Levitt’s well-justified reputation. After something like this, it’s hard to see how Levitt can distinguish himself from his former adversary John Lott.

67 thoughts on “Unforgivable, at least by me

  1. “the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased.”

    So are you saying 2005 is not hotter than the last couple of years?

  2. ProfQ,

    Your rhetoric is a serious problem. The sheer nastiness of this piece is a warning shot that there are people who are so emotionally involved that they will descend to any depths to attack another individual.

  3. Tony G is on the money. You see so many of these graphs which cut off at 1975 or 1980. This ignores the 40 years of cooling trend between 1940 and 1980. Also it ignores the 40 years of cooling trend between 1880 and 1920.

    The temperatures we are seeing now are certainly not unprecedented :).

  4. Yeah, John, Tony G is right. It’s not even necessary to go back an infinite number of years – just 4.5 billion years ago, the surface of the earth was molten lava! And now it’s not! So there’s a well established trend of global cooling right there!

    😉

  5. If the trend was going down then up…

    Something isn’t right since we have had carbon emissions for decades and our efficiency has improved since the 70s.

  6. It is clear that this issue is turning into a religion. This is worrying since religion possessing such vitriolic followers never seems to yield positive societal results.

  7. Agree. It is like a person attacking a religion and the response has been frightening with some columnists complaining that it is because we live in a democracy we cannot properly act against climate change. Such rhetoric underlies the emotional state of some of these people.

  8. “real statisticians (the group to which Levitt formerly belonged) ”

    In what universe is that true? That he uses statistics in his work (or, as he has often noted, has a coauthor who does the statistical work) does not make him skilled at them.

  9. This is an interesting quote from the AP article: “Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, said he does not believe there is a cooling trend. He said the line was just an attempt to note the irony of a cool couple of years at a time of intense discussion of global warming.”

    Maybe ProfQ should apologise for trying to smear Levitt?

  10. Wow! Prof Q, your blog seems to attract delusionists like flies to a fresh corpse. I thought you’d determined that delusionists were to be barred. Bring it on, please.

  11. Please. Spare me that cr@p.

    I am very risk averse with the environment but I am not arrogant enough to assume that we know every trigger for climate change.

  12. A statistician who is looking for trends in the global temperature data, and who goes no farther than an “eyeballing” of a small subset of it on a graph to arrive at their conclusion, is clearly taking the day off from their statistics work. They’re doing something but it sure ain’t statistics.

  13. I’m unsurprised that the local delusionists have run to Levitt’s defence, which rather casts doubt on his and Dubner’s claim that they are not writing in support of the delusionist cause.

    @SeanG If you write a book chapter entited “Global cooling” and include sentences like that quoted, most readers will assume you to believe that the world is in fact cooling. To say afterwards, that it was all intended ironically just compounds this offence.

  14. By attacking him in such a personal and negative way, how do you think people who read this but who are not emotionally involved would think? They would ask why it is that people are so defensive that they would act so negatively and then they will listen to those who are genuinely dangerous.

    I think that you should engage in fact because only by acting rationally do you then genuinely marginalise them. How often do we hear of every single environmental event like a tornardo or whatever as a part of the “catastrophic climate change”? Overblown rhetoric, coupled with being extremely defensive when cross-examined does nothing to your argument.

    Also, ProfQ, I am very risk averse when it comes to the environment. As we do not know everything and probably never will – we must be risk averse when it comes to the environment because of the possibility of devastating outcomes. Yet this is the type of approach which is not used but would be devastating to counter climate change critics. Maybe you should amend your approach.

  15. I would like to amend the end of the sentence of the second paragraph to being: “does nothing positive…”

  16. The coolists may not have to wait long for vindication. The British Met Office predicts half the years 2010 to 2015 will be hotter than 1998. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8299079.stm
    I lived in southern NSW in 1998 and I recall there were 100 days over 30C.

    If it doesn’t heat up in the next five years (which even some AGW believers think is possible) then the coolists could be on to something. I wouldn’t bet on it though.

  17. A statistic is a measure. Statistics is the science of looking at measures. Scientists create models then use statistics to look for instances where the model does not work. The scientists then say is my model close to what is observed? If not they either abandon the model or try to adjust it to take into account the variations.

    Economists have a bad track record in modelling. Most base their models around the idea of general equilibrium which has been pretty hopeless as a predictor or even an explainer of economic behaviour. Rather than abandon the model and start from different premises they still cling to the underlying idea – probably because they have invested so much effort and time into understanding it.

    This would not be so bad but people take notice of them and economists are the gatekeepers to so many policy areas of government.

    Economists – like Levitt – now apply general equilibrium model ideas to other areas and say – because we are listened to in economic areas our pronouncements on climate change using the same techniques should be taken seriously.

    Come on. If they had half decent models of the economy then perhaps I would take notice.

  18. A statistic is a measure. Statistics is the science of looking at measures. Scientists create models then use statistics to look for instances where the model does not work. The scientists then say is my model close to what is observed? If not they either abandon the model or try to adjust it to take into account the variations.

    Economists have a bad track record in modelling. Most base their models around the idea of general equilibrium which has been pretty hopeless as a predictor or even an explainer of economic behaviour. Rather than abandon the model and start from different premises they still cling to the underlying idea – probably because they have invested so much effort and time into understanding it.

    This would not be so bad but people take notice of them and economists are the gatekeepers to so many policy areas of government.

    Economists – like Levitt – now apply general equilibrium model ideas to other areas and say – because we are listened to in economic areas our pronouncements on climate change using the same techniques should be taken seriously.

    Come on. If they had half decent models of the economy then perhaps I would take notice.

  19. Pr Q says:

    he’s combined all this with creative flair and an impressive capacity to see the right way of teasing compelling conclusions out of refractory data.

    Looking back, I still think this judgement stands up as regards Freakonomics, which makes the tragedy of Superfreakonomics all the greater.

    No, Pr Q’s judgement turns out to have been too charitable, at least as far as Leavitt’s headline “abortion cuts crime” theory is concerned. The data was “refractory” because there really was just a bunch of trees, not a forest here.

    Leavitt’s contrarian method did not stop his work from immediately being hailed as conventional wisdom. But there were some party-poopers right from the get-go. Right back in 1999 Steve Sailer poked damaging holes in Leavitt’s celebrated “abort unwanted low-status babies and you get less social pathology and crime a generation later” theory.

    The prima facie evidence showed that the cohort born over the period of abortion liberalisation (say from 1970-80) was amongst the most violent in US history, with the murder rate for 14-17 yr olds tripling over the 1985-95 period. Later on Sailer poked fun at the academic tendency to KICS (Keep It Complex Stupid):

    Ever since my 1999 debate with Levitt in Slate.com, Levitt’s fans have been telling me that my simpleminded little graphs and ratios of national-level crime trends showing, for example, that the teen homicide rate tripled in the first cohort born after Roe v. Wade couldn’t possibly be right because Levitt’s econometric state-level analysis was so much more gloriously, glamorously, incomprehensibly complicated than mine, and Occam’s Butterknife says that the guy with the most convoluted argument wins.

    At least as important as teasing conclusions from refractory data is believing what is in front of ones own “‘lyin eyes”. I lived in NYC during the early nineties at the height of the Crack Wars before “Sex and the City” types move in in force. I can tell you straight that the young ‘uns were the most dangerous, mainly because they could not be charged with capital crime.

    Whats really remarkable about the whole affair d’Leavitt is the way that so many highly rated academics including the normally hard-to-please Crooked Timbers fell over themselves to give this guy rock star acclaim. Although later on it was academics who finally knocked him off his pedestal.

    But hey, the era of celebrity academics was fun while it lasted!

  20. These type of books (I haven’t read the super version) are about making money and having fun. Useful for challenging some assumptions but not necessarily for locking onto new ones.

    The purpose of statistics is to allow you to tell a good story and win arguments. In the old days we told stories by playing dot to dot with the night stars and saw saucepans and warriors but these days data points are more fashionable. What gets forgotten is that just because the story is valid, an important precondition for truth, that does not mean it actually is true.

    The lack of recent warming is interesting because it challenges the AGW story. However as the defenders of the AGW story will point out the lack of recent warming isn’t a fatal blow.

    US public opinion suggests that less are believing the AGW story lately. That fractionally more US citizens believe in ghosts than believe in AGW suggests that proponents are not selling their story that well. Try harder.

  21. Keven Cox @ 19 and @20 : ” Economists – like Levitt – now apply general equilibrium model ideas to other areas and say – because we are listened to in economic areas our pronouncements on climate change using the same techniques should be taken seriously. ”

    Keven, I am at a loss regarding the above. I don’t know anything about Levitt but I do know that the theory of incomplete markets, that is the formal model, involves a ‘general equilibrium’ idea. Nevertheless, it is a useful model for looking for solutions to serious negative externalities of which C02 emissions are the subject of interest at present.

    Would you like to elaborate or explain your proposition, quoted above?

  22. TerjeP (say tay-a) :
    The lack of recent warming is interesting because it challenges the AGW story. .

    no it doesn’t – annual variability is expected and the warming continues

    US public opinion suggests that less are believing the AGW story lately. That fractionally more US citizens believe in ghosts than believe in AGW suggests that proponents are not selling their story that well. Try harder.

    doesn’t follow at all – the obvious reason is that the USA is filled with people who believe in the supernatural and don’t understand science. Combine that with the media agin the supernatural is tiny whereas the media agin AGW is huge and you have a better explanation.

    And stats can be, and primarily is, used in science to discover things

  23. What’s the big deal? Climate change means the temperature can go up or down, which means that more government intervention and wealth redistribution is required no matter what.

    Seriously though, why do leftists get so hot under the collar about those who are not completely “ideologically sound” when it comes to climate change? Regardless of the truth of the climate change hypothesis (and I tend to believe that it is true, necessitating some action), there is no denying that the climate change is now the surrogate mother of the anti-capitalist movement.

    If the left could stop rolling their eyes and getting so indignant about everyone who dares to display some scepticism about the Holy Word of the IPCC, perhaps the debate would be less divisive and we might actually see some progress.

  24. A genius is someone with two ideas. People seemed to believe that with Freakonomics – Jack can you explain do you think your misspelling of his name? – Levitt had come up with several ideas, thereby putting him into a very special class indeed. I haven’t read or even glanced at the book perhaps because I’m rather sceptical that it could live up to that kind of hype. And that btw would be scepticism of the scientific type Tony G, SeanG and Rationalist, scepticism that I’m skeptical any of you blog warriors would recognise as such even as it was biting you on the arse.

  25. I agree people fell over this Levitt to give him Rock Star status (briefly). Frankly I couldnt see what all the fuss was about. My next door neighbour, a bank manager, gave Freakonmics to me to read and was all excited about it. I started off and after a few chapters, thought what an inane trite little book. Chucked it. One for the vox populi weekend readers.

  26. @Sea-bass
    Aaah Sea Bass is back with his general spouts to the indefinable “leftists” or “lefties” or “those on the left.” Sea Bass wouldnt know what balance was if it bit him on the bum either…would you Sea Bass? He is balance challenged due to having both legs in the right trouser.

  27. @Alice
    I’ve actually got labyrinthitis at the moment (no joke) and so your statment about my lack of balance was especially poignant. However, despite your claims, I actually (physically) feel as though I’m leaning more to the left (ba-doom-TISH!). I blame you lunatic lefties for this debilitating affliction, and accuse this site of inducing loss of balance.

  28. Sea-bass :
    @Alice
    I’ve actually got labyrinthitis at the moment (no joke)

    my sympathies – I am amazed you can type and read – when I had it I could not walk or stand and my visual system was completely disconnected from my body orientation

  29. @nanks
    Thanks, I know some people get it real bad (my aunt couldn’t stand up straight for 2 weeks when she had it). I think I got a mild case – I had an initial attack that lasted for a few hours and then went to just feeling constantly queasy for the last few weeks, but I can still get around ok, have been driving and going to class and even if I wanted to collapse I wouldn’t be able to because it is exam time at university. My typing is pretty retarded, and some times I think that I can’t make it to JQ’s blog, but then I realise how disappointed all of you would be if I wasn’t posting here, dispensing the wisdom of free markets and liberty to those in need.

    A lot of it depends on your state of mind, and we classical liberals/libertarians are a happy-go-lucky bunch who are made of sterner stuff, and so I think I’ll be ok.

  30. @Sea-bass
    Sea Bass –

    All you need is a little tiny push to the left and we will have you straightened up in no time (do I sound like a doctor or what? I dont think your Mother would approve though! Seriously at least you have a doc and not an economist to case manage you – be thankful for small mercies eh?)

  31. Interesting thread. Sea-bass tells us he is affected by some terrible sickness, others talk of religion. Why is the connection between fundamental Christianity and delusion so strong. Why is that delusionists talk so much of religion? How did they get this religious moniker? Why is it that taking a Pollyanna view of the world, or one that is fatalistic, impedes taking the actions urgently required/

    There may be more things than carbon causing the globe to warm – but we should be doing what we can to mitigate the effects, as creating an unstable system will have impacts that are horrible. We need to get past the squabbling over whether the globe is warming. In this regard data can be misleading. There are many variables in any set of data, including what has been collected and how.

    What is hard to dispute is the impact on glaciers and the ice in the Arctic . The tree canopy all over the world is being cut down with no thought to the impact. Trees store a lot of CO2. Engineering alone will not offer us a solution because of the costs.

    It was bad enough when the Ozone layer was depleted by aerosols and acid rain was killing European forests a few decades ago. The Barrier Reef is under serious threat now. The Southern Bluefin Tuna grounds are being covered in oil now and there is no end in sight. This interrupts a food source. Without food there is no life. It doesn’t get more serious than that.

    What is required is less of the “happy go lucky” mind state extolled above and more intellectual rigour in the literature. Those who write on the topic should be adding to knowledge rather than recycling arguments to appeal to the delusionists who are happy to part with their money.

    It is time to do something real and those who oppose are so entirely unhelpful in progressing community action.

    Although the delusionists’ conspiracy theory says scientists who are certain of climate change don’t know what they are talking about; Delusionist would help us all if they were to look at the totality and consequences of inaction rather than just the bits of data that appeal to them.

  32. @Jill Rush
    My current illness has very little to do with the current debate. And I’m not actually a climate change denier, although I’m probably not as concerned about climate change as most of you are.

    I can remember somebody saying that Steve Fielding (of Family First) and Cardinal Pell don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change because they already have a religion.

    I’m not a scientist, and I can’t actually tell if the globe is warming or not. I rely on others for that. My point (and my biggest concern) is that climate change is now a vehicle for the Marxist agenda and naturally appeals to those people who want larger government control of our lives and more wealth redistribution. I do not even see this as a conspiracy – go to any Marxist/socialist website and you see they are the most vehement supporters of action on climate change. We have good reason to be suspicious.

  33. I am not worried by the climate science deniers. I am more worried by the delayers and prevaricators.

    The delayers and prevaricators are the ones who say, “Yeah it’s happening but let’s not rush into doing anything yet… (sotto voco: because we are making good money out of the status quo and we’ll be dead before too much damage is done, so who cares?)

    What they don’t realise is that anyone under 60 is likely to live to see climate change have a real impact on their lives… and yep possibly even cause their premature death.

  34. @Sea-bass
    Sea Bass – your left leaning afflictionis now affecting your brain when you say things like “climate change is a vehicle for the Marxist agenda”. Marx is dead. Marxism is dead. JH tried but failed tio rescusitate the culture wars of the 60s (where the right wing McCarthyists actually blew up a communist threat from tree shadows in the evening light)…BUT please Sea Bass…..that debate is over. The McCarthysists were the real threat. Stalin wasnt a communist nor a marxist but an evil fascist dictator.

    History as posed by silly people and fear mongers isnt real at all Sean …all of this is in your affected labrynthine imagination right now.

    Take a pill aand lie down.n In the morning such nonsense will seem as it is..just nonsense.

  35. @Sea-bass
    We NEED more wealth redistribution Sea Bass…especially from the politicians to the people.! lets start there and then redistribute from the VERY rich. They need some curtailment of their gambling activities but Ill grant you this concession. WE SLASH POLITCIANS WAGES and benefits first!!!!

  36. I must say I find the tone of the attacks on Levitt’s climate change piece unfortunately reminiscient of the stoning of heretics. Every word in his piece is subject to forensic dissection, and the intent of the arguments seems to be to blow Levitt out of the water rather than to engage with the arguments/thoughts he is putting forward.

  37. @Sea-bass
    Sea Bass – better you have the sense to determine real enemies from politically constructed enemies. The latter are all false and you need to look beneath the propanganda to stop worrying about lefties, Marxists and communists but it really is time you did. Better to know thy real enemy than to engage a ghost in combat! Political parties are wonderful at inventing ghosts to scare people. So what if people had communist party affiliations? In the 1920s, 30s and 40s – it was fashionable – you know, like certain dances and hairstyles (like libertarians and freedom fighters now??)

    The last true enemy Australians really had was perhaps the Japanese when they drove their subs up Sydney Harbour (but I also consider George Bush an enemy when he got the better of JH and the rest of us in the Free Trade Agreement – poor stupid JH).I dont like getting ripped off.

    There is no enemy in ideas Sean. None at all. That is called freedom of speech and thank goodness we have it (even though JH made serious attempts to silence people).

  38. @johncanb
    Its very hard to engage with Levitts ideas when the book wasnt very interesting…johncanb.
    Maybe microeconomists would engage better than macroeconomists or people that have never thought that the best way to reduce crime is to encourage single mothers to have abortions (charming and chilling at the same time). I actually think Levitt is an arse if you want my honest opinion.

  39. @johncanb
    I mean seriously…how can you take someone seriously in any economic sense when they address symptoms rather than the underlying disease?? Thats all Levitt does…take the temperature and blood pressure and fails to make a substantial diagnosis. Economics lite.

  40. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    The lack of recent warming is interesting because it challenges the AGW story. However as the defenders of the AGW story will point out the lack of recent warming isn’t a fatal blow.

    Nah, all that the “lack of recent warming” tells us is that AGW skeptics can’t do basic stats.

    And in the case of the Freakonomics crew, that is pretty poor.

  41. @Sea-bass

    My point (and my biggest concern) is that climate change is now a vehicle for the Marxist agenda and naturally appeals to those people who want larger government control of our lives and more wealth redistribution. I do not even see this as a conspiracy – go to any Marxist/socialist website and you see they are the most vehement supporters of action on climate change. We have good reason to be suspicious.

    I heard that Marxists also believe in evolution, gravity and a spherical earth. Perhaps you should be suspicious about all of these as well.

    Or perhaps, you should ignore the Marxists and get your science from a scientific source.

  42. And here we see what really lies behind so much of the angst

    @Ken Miles

    For many, this is simply another instantiation of the culture wars, with scientific ‘scepticism’ operating as figleaf to cover their naked angst.

  43. Kevin Cox :
    Economists – like Levitt – now apply general equilibrium model ideas to other areas and say – because we are listened to in economic areas our pronouncements on climate change using the same techniques should be taken seriously.

    This is utterly baffling. When has Levitt ever done anything resembling “general equilibrium” modelling? Ever? Anywhere?

    If you’re going to criticise Levitt, perhaps you could do so on non-specious grounds? If that’s all right with you.

  44. @Sea-bass

    Sorry, but the two things aren’t cause and effect. Some people who have a Marxist agenda (must read something by Marx one day so I know what the heck all the fuss is about) presumably see global warming as a convenient excuse for furthering their agenda.
    It does not necessarily follow that global warming is fictitious! In fact, if every Marxist held the view that AGW is a tool to exploit for their agenda, and if every Marxist didn’t care less whether AGW is real or not, it still wouldn’t change the probability that AGW is real (or not). Specious reasoning is what many outright AGW denialists rely upon – that is, they rely on you getting the reasoning wrong as a strategy for convincing you.

    Perhaps a Marxist might view the AGW theory as yet another example of where capitalism of the free market variety is flawed; again, that does not necessarily mean that global warming is fictitious. It does not even increase the probability of it being fictitious.

    On the other hand, someone who accepts that the current state of climate science research strongly supports the AGW theory concerning the current warming trend (by current I mean 100 or so years, not 1-2 years), may be a conservative; it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t a conservative. However, the fact of someone being a conservative does seem to decrease the likelihood that they accept AGW is well supported by climate science. And some who accepts that climate science research strongly supports AGW may be a progressive; again, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t a progressive. However,
    the fact of someone being a progressive does seem to increase the likelihood that they accept AGW is well supported by climate science.

    The more reading I do of climate science generally the more it appears that we are in for a real “treat” this century. The more reading I do of AGW scepticism though to the denialist end of the spectrum, the more obvious it becomes to me that most scepticism is based more upon the assumed motivations of proponents of AGW theory, than on actual gaps or genuine mis-interpretations of data. Outright denialism seems to have an even narrower set of reasons for existing than genuine sceptical appraisal of AGW.

    Simply put, I haven’t seen much in the way of well-reasoned scepticism of AGW. It is a pity that the politics so dominates the mainstream journalism about AGW.

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