The Big Freak Out

The downfall of the brains behind the Freakonomics phenomenon.

Photo from Flikr Creative Commons, User Leafar
Photo from Flikr Creative Commons, User Leafar

Four years ago, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner achieved the rarest of literary feats: Their counterintuitive book Freakonomics became a genuine nonfiction crossover hit, a best-seller beloved in academic departments and hair salons alike, praised by everyone from the Economist to O, The Oprah Magazine. Even academic economists loved the way they recast the dismal science as edgy, subversive — cool.

With their new book, SuperFreakonomics, however, Levitt and Dubner have managed to become almost as hated by the economic establishment as they were adored for Freakonomics. This time, instead of praise, they’re being tongue-lashed in congressional hearings and scourged across the academic and liberal communities, groups that once sang their praises. Representative Jay Inslee (D-Wash) called parts of it "an absolute deception" and said "we ought to blow the whistle on them." Paul Krugman, perhaps the only economist more widely known than Levitt right now, called the book "a counterintuitive train wreck."

Levitt and Dubner aren’t about to go broke — their first book sold 4 million copies, and SuperFreakonomics is already near the top of the bestseller lists. But the pair’s trademark recipe of counterintuitive snark and lightweight econo-speak no longer dazzles the establishment. Instead, by pushing the envelope of contrarianism as entertainment, the pair may have forever traded stratospheric sales for the once-glowing approval of their intellectual-elite peers. What happened?

The fury centers on a chapter — so infamous it’s recognized in the blogosphere as simply "Chapter Five" — which argues that global warming could be reversed by pumping tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, creating a sort of gassy heat shield. That in itself is a controversial proposition, since it basically advocates for more pollution in exchange for lower temperatures. But it’s something climate scientists are at least willing to consider.

What really addles their newfound detractors, though, is the way Levitt and Dubner needlessly rely on the rhetorical tropes of the climate-denial community. They begin with a classic rope-a-dope anecdote relating scary climate change headlines — only to reveal that said headlines refer to the unfounded and overhyped global-cooling scare of the 1970s. "These days," they go on, "the threat is the opposite" — inviting readers to adopt the same sort of skepticism toward global warming (even though, unlike global cooling, it is supported by an overwhelming scientific consensus).

Other tricks abound: They take the low risk of a worst-case scenario — a 5 percent chance that worldwide temperatures will rise 10 degrees Celsius — and use it to cast doubt on the prospects of the planet warming at all. They even argue that carbon may not be the main cause of warming. The only reason this "complex" reality isn’t better publicized, they say, is because for many, "global warming has taken on the feel of a religion." Finally, having debunked the global-warming faith, the pair admits that, yes, something should probably be done — which leads them to propose the sulfur dioxide shield.

Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with the climate-change establishment. Climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told The Boston Globe, "At a minimum, they’re guilty of extremely shoddy scholarship and overcredulity." In fact, piling onto the "Steves," as they’re often called, has become something of a sport among scientific, economic, and liberal policy commentators — who can find the biggest errors, who can uncover the most dubious assertions. Many point out, for instance, that the chapter’s skeptical stance rests on the sleight-of-hand elision between the 5 percent chance of the worst-case climate scenario and the near certainty that something pretty bad will happen (even a two degree rise in temperatures would be catastrophic). The fury has even brought peace to otherwise warring scientific camps — physicist Joseph Romm and climate modeler William Connelley, two bitter rivals over a whole range of global-warming arcana, have managed to find common ground in their mutual disgust for Chapter 5.

What irks critics the most is that Levitt and Dubner aren’t making new arguments — they are trotting out the stock and trade of climate deniers, as if they were new discoveries. The conclusion: Either the Freakonomics guys are oblivious to the state of discussion on climate matters, or they are being willfully and — given the number of Americans who doubt the earth is warming at all — dangerously disingenuous.

Romm, a science-policy expert with the Center for American Progress, eviscerated the authors in a lengthy blog post, published before the book even appeared. "Sadly," Romm wrote, "for Levitt’s readers and reputation, he decided to adopt the contrarian view of global warming, which takes him far outside of his expertise." A bit melodramatically, Romm even dubbed them with the neologistic acronym "FAKERs — Famous ‘Authorities’ whose Knowledge (of climate) is Extremely Rudimentary."

It hasn’t helped that, in response, the pair has cried foul on their New York Times blog: "To think we are ‘deniers,’" writes Dubner, "would obviate the chapter’s central point: if we weren’t convinced that global warming was worth worrying about, we wouldn’t have written a chapter about proposed solutions." They’re just doing the Lord’s work, in other words, explaining the complexities of climate and batting down misperceptions.

But why then open with a tired bit about global cooling? Why call global warming a "religion"? The answer, their critics have decided, lies on a deeper level, and explains the real reason so many have turned against Levitt and Dubner: "Freakonomics" — not the book so much as the practice of using econ-speak to forward contrarian ideas — is clever, but not very insightful. It’s entertaining to watch apple carts overturned, but not very informative.

The problem lies in proportion. It’s one thing to be contrarian about relatively minor things like the economics of sumo wrestling. "Chapter 5," however, shows that Levitt and Dubner are more interested in entertainment than balance. "This is a serious issue," wrote Krugman. "We’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization. It’s not a place to play snarky, contrarian games."

The hullabaloo has also sent critics looking back to the original Freakonomics. "The Freakonomists have a history of misrepresenting environmental science," wrote econ-blogger Felix Salmon, noting that in one section of their 2005 book they took the highest-cost estimate for an EPA regulation as the only option, then drew extensive conclusions from it. "Why would they pick a number which seems designed to shock," Salmon asked, "rather than a much more reliable number which is less shocking?"

Others have pointed out that a recently dismissed libel suit against Levitt (not Dubner) left open the question of whether he unfairly characterized another economist as having fabricated evidence. And still others have noted problems with even some of Freakonomics‘s most hallowed chapters, including a devastating critique of Levitt’s argument that legalizing abortion led to lower crime rates in the 1990s by two Boston Federal Reserve economists, results that Levitt himself admitted were "personally quite embarrassing."

Of course none of this was particularly secret when Freakonomics was being lauded four years ago, often by the same people now wielding the knives. But the difference was that, back then, the good seemed to outweigh the bad — yes, there might be problems with the details, but look at all the good Levitt and Dubner are doing by raising public awareness of incentives and general economic principles! "Imagine the best of Levitt put into readable form by an excellent journalist," wrote blogger and George Mason economist Tyler Cowen at the time. "When it comes to the popular exposition of contemporary economic research, this book is a milestone."

Had they continued with the same small-bore hunts in their new book, the pair could have won similar accolades this time around, if perhaps less excited ones. But instead, to amp up their reception, they abandoned economic rigor in favor of contrarian entertainment, and in doing so lost the respect of the nation’s intellectual establishment. It’s up to them to decide whether an extra million book sales was worth it.

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