Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Believe it or not, we've been talking about the nice Krugman -- some perspective on the 538 debate

[You may have trouble getting past the NYT firewall on these. If so, the easiest way around this is either to Google name and author or do what I did and go here for a complete set.]

One of the side questions in the ongoing 538 debate is whether or not Nate Silver and his writers are being excessively criticized. There is certainly some truth to the charge (for reasons I'll get into later), but it's also important to remember that, to a remarkable extent, Silver walked into a bar fight, a number of intense, ongoing debates about science and statistics, some of which had long ago turned quite nasty.

Quite a few of those fights involved Freakonomics, and the topic of climate change in particular and contrarian data journalism in general. The hiring of Roger Pielke Jr. and Emily Oster raised the specter of those two issues respectively. It was pretty much inevitable that the association would heighten the criticism of 538. That association does not mean, however, that the two are being equated. As far as I can tell, the tone of criticism of Silver within the analytic community has been disappointed and concerned rather than angry.

Having previously discussed Krugman's criticisms of 538, it's useful to compare them to his reaction to Superfreakonomics. For me, at least, the difference in tone is notable.

A counterintuitive train wreck
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.

Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counterintuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

It looks as if Superfreakonomics has gone way over that line.

Superfreakonomics on climate, part 1
OK, I’m working my way through the climate chapter — and the first five pages, by themselves, are enough to discredit the whole thing. Why? Because they grossly misrepresent other peoples’ research, in both climate science and economics.
Yikes. I read Weitzman’s paper, and have corresponded with him on the subject — and it’s making exactly the opposite of the point they’re implying it makes. Weitzman’s argument is that uncertainty about the extent of global warming makes the case for drastic action stronger, not weaker. And here’s what he says about the timing of action:

Again, we’re not even getting into substance — just the basic issue of representing correctly what other people said.
The conventional economic advice of spending modestly on abatement now but gradually ramping up expenditures over time is an extreme lower bound on what is reasonable rather than a best estimate of what is reasonable.


Weitzman in context
But you’d never get this point from the way the book quotes Weitzman, which cites his probability of utter catastrophe as if it were a reason to be skeptical of the need to act. I suspect, though I don’t know this, that the authors were just careless — they skimmed Weitzman’s paper, which is densely written, saw a number they liked, and didn’t ask what the number meant.

And that sort of carelessness is the general sense I get from the chapter.

Levitt now says that the chapter wasn’t meant to lend credibility to global warming denial — but when you open your chapter by giving major play to the false claim that scientists used to predict global cooling, you have in effect taken the denier side. The only way I can reconcile what Levitt says now with that reality is that he and Dubner didn’t do their homework — not only that they didn’t check out the global cooling stuff, the stuff about solar panels, and all the other errors people have been pointing out, but that they didn’t even look into the debate sufficiently to realize what company they were placing themselves in.

And that’s not acceptable. This is a serious issue. We’re not talking about the ethics of sumo wrestling here; we’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization. It’s not a place to play snarky, contrarian games.


One good aspect of the controversy, though, has been some broader analysis of what it all means. I liked three recent comments in particular.

Joshua Gans identifies in Dubner and Levitt an odd inconsistency that I’ve identified more broadly: those who go on and on about how people respond to incentives when they’re making a pro-free-market argument suddenly seem to lose all faith in the power of incentives when the goal is to induce more environmentally friendly behavior:

But come on. Isn’t the whole point of the Freakonomics project that prices work and behaviour changes in response to incentives? Everywhere else, a few pennies will cause massive consumption changes while when it comes to a carbon price, it is all too hard.

Ryan Avent makes a general point about people who dismiss cap-and-trade as too hard, then promote something else that only seems easier because you haven’t thought it through. I agree with him about the carbon tax issue; and while I hadn’t thought about applying the same principle to geoengineering, he’s completely right. Having somebody — who? The United States? The United Nations? The Coalition of the Willing? — pump sulfur into the atmosphere through an 18-mile tube, or cut off sunlight with a giant orbital mirror, would either (a) require many years of hard negotiations or (b) quite possibly set off World War III. If it’s (a), why is that so much easier than a global agreement on emissions? (Which, as Brad points out, really would only have to involve four big players.)

Finally, Andrew Gelman poses a question:

The interesting question to me is why is it that “pissing off liberals” is delightfully transgressive and oh-so-fun, whereas “pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest?

I have a theory here, although it may not be the whole story: it’s about careerism. Annoying conservatives is dangerous: they take names, hold grudges, and all too often find ways to take people who annoy them down. As a result, the Kewl Kids, as Digby calls them, tread very carefully when people on the right are concerned — and they snub anyone who breaks the unwritten rule and mocks those who must not be offended.

Annoying liberals, on the other hand, feels transgressive but has historically been safe. The rules may be changing (as Dubner and Levitt are in the process of finding out), but it’s been that way for a long time.

The “tell”, I’d suggest, is that once you get beyond those for whom the decision about whom to laugh at is a career move, people don’t, in fact, seem to find mocking liberals funnier than mocking conservatives. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are barreling along, while right-wing attempts to produce counterpart shows have bombed.

Anyway, say this for Dubner and Levitt — they’ve provoked an interesting discussion, although probably not the one they hoped for.


Elizabeth Kolbert can’t say that, can she?
But mainly, I’m envious. [Elizabeth] Kolbert builds the essay around an extended metaphor involving, um, equine effluvia that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t be allowed under Times style. On the whole, the requirement that Times writers show appropriate dignity is good for everyone; still, sometimes I’m wistful.

Oh, and the reference in the title of this post is to the much-missed Molly Ivins.

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