Nov 162009

Book Short: Sloppy Sequel

Book Short:  Sloppy Sequel

SuperFreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the original Freakonomics, either.  I always find the results of “naturally controlled experiments” and taking a data-driven view of the world to be very refreshing.  And as much as I like the social scientist versions of these kinds of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink (book; blog post), there’s usually something about reading something data driven written by a professional quant jock that’s more reassuring.

That’s where SuperFreakonomics fell down a bit for me.  Paul Krugman has described the book in a couple different places as “snarky and contrarian.”  I typically enjoy books that carry those descriptors, but this one seemed a bit over the top for economists — like a series of theories looking for data more than raw data adding up to theories.Nowhere is this more true than the chapter on climate change.  It’s a shame that that chapter seems to be swallowing up all the public discussion about the book, because there are some good points in that chapter, and the rest of the book is better than that particular chapter, but such is life.

As with all things related to the environment, I turned to my friend Andrew Winston’s blog, where he has a good post about how the authors kind of miss the point about climate change…and he also has a series of links to other blog posts debunking this one chapter.  If you’re into the topic, or if you read the book, follow the chain here for good reading.  My conclusion about this chapter, being at least somewhat informed about the climate change debate, is that the book seems to have sloppy writing and editing at best, possibly deliberately misleading at worst.  (Incidentally, the reaction in the blogosphere seems highly emotional, other than Andrew’s, which probably doesn’t serve the reactors well.)

But I’ll assume the best of intentions.  Some of the points made aren’t bad – there is no debate about the problem or the need to solve it, the authors express legitimate concern that current solutions, especially those requiring behavioral change, will be too little too late, and most interestingly, they show an interest in alternative approaches like geo-engineering.  I hadn’t been familiar with that topic at all, but I’m now much more interested in it, not because it’s a “silver bullet” approach to dealing with climate change, but because it’s a different approach, and complex problems like climate change deserve to have a wide range of people working on multiple types of solutions.  I met Nathan Myhrvold once (I almost threw up on him during a job interview, which is another story for another day), and it makes me very happy that his brilliance is being applied to this problem as a general principle.

As I said, though, beyond this one chapter, the book is good-not-great.  But it certainly is chock full of cocktail party nuggets!

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