Posted by: Ele Quigan | July 11, 2010

‘SuperFreakonomics’ Steven Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Ele reading Superfreakanomics at one of the tube stations

Ele reading Superfreakanomics at one of London's tube stations

The social economic/social psychology books have been a bit of a craze over the past few years, starting off with ‘Tipping point’ by Malcolm Gladwell, ‘The Undercover Economist’ by Tim Harford, and then the huge hit ‘Freakonomics’.

Essentially pulling apart data to find interesting insights and develop conclusions (I’m sure advertising planners do a similar thing on a daily basis) these books occasionally feel like one long infographic

Maybe it’s the heat of reading this book primarily on the tube putting me off, but for a change (I usually love them) I found this book boring, and not really that insightful. One piece I’d already read in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, one piece I fundamentally disagreed with – their stance on how to solve the global warming problem.

As I’ve got older, I’ve leant further and further towards the left in my thinking. Care for our planet has become far more important than it ever has been, and within that – reducing my overall impact on the planet (I hesitate to say ‘my carbon footprint’, because in my opinion it’s more than that…). I was incredibly surprised to read a chapter within this book about how to solve the problem of ‘global warming’ with geoengineering, and as I continued to read, the more surprised (and almost insulted) I became.

I’m of the view is that even if we can’t ‘prove’ that the rapidly accelerating climate change that we are seeing is caused by humans’ impact on the planet, that reducing the amount of poison that we drop into the environment can only be a good thing. I was incredibly surprised to see the line within this book not along the lines of overall reduction, but to use stratospheric sulfate aerosols to create a global dimming effect.

Really? what was the reason for this contrary point of view – was it to shock people into buying the book through the eventual backlash from climate change scientists and interested parties across the planet?

I decided to read through some of the backlash (this book was released last year) from The Guardian, The New Yorker, Tree hugger (which also includes detailed factual errors).

For example – how many errors do you think there are in the below paragraph… One? two?

“A lot of the things that people say would be good things probably aren’t,” Myrhvold says. As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12% gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat — which contributed to global warming.”

Four. For a breakdown of the errors, have a look at this article here from Climate Progress

The book put a relatively sour taste in my mouth, and the more articles and comments I read about their ambivalence to the facts, and only seeming to write something that they knew was going to be controversial (cause controversy sells right? Surely that is why tabloids like ‘The Sun’ are so damn profitable…).

Overall was it an interesting read? I guess so – but I don’t have any faith in this book, or their previous one after seeing how they drew so many incorrect conclusions from a days interview/session with a leading scientist (Ken Caldeira) and how they didn’t step back and admit they were incorrect after the book was released. I’m very disappointed that the publishers didn’t consider an external fact check considering how in the spotlight climate change is at the moment (surely, if you’ve missed “climategate” you’ve been living under a rock) and the importance of ensuring that any information that presented is factually correct.


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