Saturday, November 14, 2009

Feeling and Passionate (by Phila)

As you may or may not know, Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner have written a new book called SuperFreakonomics. Like all their work, it's incredibly provocative and daring and politically incorrect and not for the faint of heart. For instance, it goes so far as to suggest that climate scientists and environmentalists haven't quite gotten their facts straight on global warming, which is something no one has ever said before...least of all an economist or journalist.

They also throw caution to the winds and call global warming a "religion." This allows them to portray themselves as heretics and blasphemers, which is a useful tactic when you're trying to make painfully drab conventional wisdom sound like a long-overdue revolution in consciousness.

It's even more useful when intelligent people question your scientific literacy and journalistic ethics. Obviously, they're just lashing out because you dared to tell it like it is, which means you get to be inordinately proud of yourself and wallow in self-pity all at once. Since Levitt and Dubner have branded themselves as freewheeling rebels who are shaking up the status quo, their critics must be hyperemotional PC reactionaries by definition. Every attack on them is further proof that they're butterflies in a world of moths.

Despite having made it their mission to bring hard truths to a world that's not prepared for them, they managed to get their own blog at the New York Times, which turns out to be an ideal perch from which to observe the bizarre antics of their detractors. For example, Dubner notes that Elizabeth Kolbert has written a negative review of SuperFreakonomics in The New Yorker. Naturally, this shows that they're heretics, and she's irrational (or possibly even hysterical).
She is a feeling and passionate environmentalist who, seemingly so disturbed by geongineering, is compelled to cast our own horse-dung story right back at us with a splat.
Kolbert is feeling and passionate! She can't handle the cold hard facts of life! And she's lashing out blindly 'cause Dubner and Levitt are tearing her little world apart with their gnarly, in-your-face truthtelling!

One of the things Kolbert whines about, in that infuriatingly feeling way of hers, is teh Superfreaks' lack of scientific credentials. But guess what? She doesn't have scientific credentials either! She just talked to a bunch of scientists about climate change, and wrote a book and some articles about the stuff she learned from them.
[I]f her Wikipedia page is correct, she somehow accomplished all this with a degree from Yale in … literature.
So it's basically a tie, since there's no higher authority we can consult in order to see who has a better grasp of the science. (Or it would be a tie, if Kolbert weren't so "feeling and passionate," which disqualifies her at the gate.)

In addition to being irreverent and visionary and fairminded and supremely rational, Dubner is also very funny. Here, he explains in a clever way why he and his BFF don't need any goddamn credentials:
The time has probably come to admit that neither of us were Ku Klux Klan members either, or sumo wrestlers or Realtors or abortion providers or schoolteachers or even pimps. And yet somehow we managed to write about all that without any horse dung (well, not much at least) flying our way.
Right. Because sumo wrestling is pretty much identical to climatology, both in terms of its complexity and its life-or-death implications for modern civilization.

The other little detail Dubner's overlooking is that while you don't have to be an expert to write about a given topic, you do have to make an effort to be accurate and to acknowledge mistakes. Which, as eminently qualified people keep telling them, they've failed to do vis a vis climate change. Still, I have to give Dubner points for defending himself against charges of arrogant dilettantism by reeling off all the other subjects he and Levitt have tackled over the years in their capacity as self-appointed Village Explainers. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that this argument might make people wonder whether he and Levitt were full of shit about those topics as well (and, if so, whether they'd be emotionally capable of admitting it).

Anyway, Kolbert lacks the proper credentials, and she lacks them in the wrong way, and she's also shrill and overserious and -- let's face it -- no fun at all. In short, she needs to bugger off, 'cause the adults are talking about money. Come back when you're a professor of geophysical sciences, lady.

Speaking of which, Raymond T. Pierrehumbert actually is a professor of geophysical sciences, and he wrote a critique of Dubner and Levitt that's just as damning as Kolbert's. Levitt's response was basically to suggest that Pierrehumbert was treating his arguments as "blasphemous" rather than wrong. It seems as though it doesn't matter what you know, what you studied, or what you can prove; if you have a problem with Dubner and Levitt, you're irrational, period. And if that upsets you...well, that only proves that you're too "emotional" to see things as clearly as they do.

Yes, it really is amazing how daring and heretical these boys are. There's no one quite like them, anywhere.