Hey, Where’s My Free Advance Copy of Superfreakonomics?

Just kidding. I don’t have time to read it anyway (nor am I all that interested).

In case you’ve missed it, there has been an enormous controversy (by blogosphere standards) over a chapter in Superfreakonomics (to be released tomorrow, I think) on climate change, carbon reduction, and geo-engineering. Brad DeLong has the most coverage (I believe this was his first post; read backwards from there), including links to some people who are supportive of the book. The summary is that a number of people have accused Levitt and Dubner of saying silly things about climate change (bad), accepting an “expert’s” opinion without doing due diligence (more bad), and possibly distorting the opinion of another expert (very bad), with the assumed goal of being contrarian and controversial. Levitt and Dubner disagree. Paul Krugman has some interesting thoughts on the dynamics involved.

This did, however, make me think a little about the difference between blogs and books. [Note: After finishing this post — which is over 1,300 words — I realized it is not as interesting as I thought it would be. So feel free to go do something else fun.]

On the Internet, it is fairly common for people to cite sources without investigating them thoroughly. How do I know this? Well, several times I have clicked through people’s footnotes and found that the sources they cited did not in fact say what they were purported to say. For example, I was writing a post about health care and the curious fact that Republicans have converted themselves into defenders of Medicare. I found an article claiming that John Boehner had, while George W. Bush was president, endorsed exactly the types of Medicare spending reductions that are in the bills in Congress. Aha! I thought. But when I clicked through to the source, it was an anodyne press release praising Bush’s entire proposed budget, of which the Medicare spending reductions were one of no doubt thousands of line items. I actually thought for half a second about just citing the article, because that would be convenient, but then I realized that of course I can’t do that. It’s sloppy not to check the source; it’s dishonest to check the source and then pretend you didn’t.

And so I’ve been bothered by a four-part takedown of Megan McArdle that Thomas Levenson wrote. (Here’s part four, via DeLong.) Here’s the part that bothers me:

“Here’s the deal: in science journalism — in any attempt to write about technical material for the public — it’s not enough simply to read an abstract or even the whole piece and call it done.

“You can’t just read the paper and assume –unless you are genuinely expert in that subdiscipline of the field you wish to cover, and often not even then — that you know what its authors’ actually have done and what it means. [...]

“So what you do if you are a properly trained and ethical science journalist/popular writer is read first, of course, with care and attention to all the places you either or both don’t understand and/or get the sense of an important subtlety…and then you call.

“You talk to someone, lots of someones if necessary.

“You get people in the field to explain what they are doing; you allow yourself to appear dumb to yourself; [...] you ask simple questions, and then more complicated ones, until you and your interlocutor agree you’ve got what you need.

“You have to persist — and if someone says check out this or that, you do, looking up the papers if necessary and then calling back…and so on. You do what a good reporter does: you cover the story.”

Why does it bother me? Because I do what Levenson accuses McArdle of — I cite papers having read through them (and sometimes I even skim certain bits), without talking to the author, and certainly without talking to other people in the field (although I may read their papers). (Levenson, by the way, is a professor of science writing at MIT.) I think I’m more careful than the average blogger, although two of my habitual critics are sure to disagree. If I don’t know what a word means, I look it up; if someone’s explanation doesn’t make logical sense to me, I go over it until it does (or I don’t use it). I check people’s sources (if I can do it online — I don’t put off blog posts so I can go to the library) before I repeat their facts. But I do write about things I’m not an expert in, and I click Publish before becoming an expert.

For the most part, I think this just comes with the territory. I tend to have a utilitarian moral sensibility, and I believe I am doing more good than harm here, even if I make a mistake here or there. The Internet does have the nice property of exposing people’s mistakes pretty quickly, often in the comment stream. But there is the problem that Megan McArdle has a much bigger audience than Thomas Levenson, and, like an urban myth in a mass email, error can spread much faster than truth can catch up with it. And I have the nagging sense that I have set my standards where they are convenient for me, not where they are best for the world. (But as I said, I’m no Kantian.)

Anyway, to get back to our subject, it seems to me that Levitt and Dubner’s critics are accusing them of bad blogging — but doing it in a book. When someone writes a blog post (or a newspaper op-ed) that is obviously a piece of advocacy where the author has mined the facts to find whatever supports his or her argument, a few people blast it in what has come to be known as a “takedown,” and then everyone moves on. If it’s in a book, though, then things get more serious.

I can think of four reasons for this.

  • First, a book is disproportionate to its reviews. All Internet posts are formally equal, even if some people have bigger audiences than others; but no one is going to write a book debating Superfreakonomics, and if someone did, it wouldn’t sell as many copies.
  • Second, a book is meant to be read by many people who do not follow debates on the Internet. With a book, the authors are reaching beyond the presumably skeptical and sophisticated audience of the blogs, out to the “general audience” where it can potentially do more damage.
  • Third, books last in ways that Internet posts don’t. (At least they are assumed to.) There is an assumption that they are serious, well-researched, and fact-checked, while there is an opposite assumption that blog posts are none of those. Books are more likely to be cited in Congressional testimony than their meticulous takedowns on the Internet.
  • Fourth, authors might stir up controversy in a book in order to generate sales.

In other words, it’s because The Book has a special place in our cultural environment. What’s ironic, however, is that few people read books anymore. Although Superfreakonomics will no doubt do well, people in publishing have told me that 50,000 copies sold will pretty much guarantee you a spot on the nonfiction bestseller list. By contrast, our Financial Crisis for Beginners page has gotten almost 200,000 pageviews, and a quick post on health insurance rescission that I banged out in a few minutes got over 80,000 pageviews on one day, thanks to the Huffington Post. (And our Atlantic article got over a million pageviews by mid-summer.)

So … I don’t really have a conclusion here. I think it’s good that people care about whether Levitt and Dubner cited their sources accurately. But I also think that this applies equally (or almost equally) to writing of the online type. And I worry that there really is no good mechanism to enforce accuracy on the Internet. Even among print newspapers, I’ve noticed that op-ed articles are not fact-checked, and some print magazines don’t fact-check either. Blogs, of course, have never been fact-checked. Counting on writers’ internal sense of duty isn’t going to work. And the marketplace of ideas is better at valuing heat than light. Ultimately the Superfreakonomics controversy is a sign of a much, much bigger problem, and one for which I have no solution.

Update: Mark Thoma wonders along the same lines. Also, I highly recommend StatsGuy’s comment below (it’s the first one).

By James Kwak

23 responses to “Hey, Where’s My Free Advance Copy of Superfreakonomics?

  1. Levitt & Co have made a name for themselves being controversial. Aside from the sloppiness, I think the current debate is whether the book deserves the academic stature that its authorship would normally grant, or whether it deserves the mass-fiction stature of an author such as… oh, Glenn Beck.

    The reason this is a lightning rod in this case is because the of the magnitude of the issue, and that Levitt may be doing great harm to achieve notoriety.

    Aside from the technical debate (will water vapor propulsion to elevations of 5000+ feet be possible, or is the only real geoengineering alternative going to be inserting acidic sulfides into the stratosphere – which is awful), the very act of advocating a second-best alternative reduces the likelihood that we will achieve a first-best alternative (a carbon tax, which not only reduces the negative externality but can displace harmful income taxes and be channeled into energy investments).

    Why? It’s a simple game theory result. The carbon emission system is like a multi-lateral prisoner’s dilemma game. Everyone has an incentive to get others to cooperate but personally defect. Fortunately, it differs from the pure game in the sense that countries can use side-punishments, but the game has one huge insight:

    The likelihood of cooperation is dependent on the penalty, and if the penalty of failure to cooperate is global armageddon… well, then there just might be a chance that we’ll get something done.

    But if a significant number of people start to believe that we can delay the implementation another 20-30 years (and Levitt seems to argue that the issue is not as urgent as people claim), AND that there’s a not-so-bad second best option, then this increases the chances that we will fail to implement the first best option.

    Your posts about the financial system don’t have this problem – by arguing for reform, you are not decreasing the chance that reform will occur.

    Given this dynamic, Levitt has a moral responsibility to hold himself to the highest academic standards in his book. The question is, did he?

    Normally, I’d be inclined to believe Levitt, but I think it’s a mixed issue here. Levitt’s chapter will become the darling of the conservative press, and it is (frankly) quite sloppy.

    Here is an opinion I greatly respect on this topic (someone who is, on the whole, qutie friendly with Levitt):

    http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2009/10/my_review_of_fr.html

    Andrew Gelman also writes very controversial work, but holds himself to very high standards. Gelman’s review is not damning, but is highly critical.

  2. James,
    You know its funny. There’s been a similar kerfuffle running for about 5 months now regarding Unsceintific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum. Really ugly backlash, all because they, as bloggers, wrote a book which they expect would be treated . . . like a book.

    And while Levinson may be right about how a science journalist should write, I’ll note here that, as a scientists, I read a lot of technical publications in journals all the time – and then work based on what was in the paper itself, not a vetting of the author post-hoc. Ind of lik ehow you do it.

  3. Also, for those interested:

    http://delong.typepad.com/files/superfreakonomics-chapter-5.pdf

    (I wonder if DeLong will get sued.)

  4. 2 Peter 2:22
    But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”

  5. when I am reading I try to connect it with other stuff from all over, read, experienced, hear-say.
    If it doesn’t synch it gets a question mark.
    If I get somebody trying to overpower my skepticism/my taking my time with yells of truth I remember that a lot of the scientific community once went wild about the possibilities to determine all kinds of things from bumps on the skull http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology
    and whoever tries to tell me that nothing similar could happen today loses a lot of credulity with me.

  6. I’m sure the authors are thanking you for the publicity, for everyone’s publicity, which will help them get that 50,000 sales number. Nowadays books are meant to be read and thrown away; ask yourself who will still have “superfreakonomics” on their bookshelf in 10 years.

  7. James seems to be a Felix Salmon fan, so I’m surprised he didn’t link to this. Felix Salmon is one of those guys, the more I read him the more impressed I get. I thought the title was just an unrelated little joke, but it’s actually directly related to Salmon’s criticism. Other than Kwak’s post this seems to be the best analysis to me.

    http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/10/18/levitt-and-dubner-on-the-northern-spotted-owl/

  8. For well-educated people raised in a Judeo-Christian culture morphing into scientific rationalism, the environmental movement offers a quasi-theological opportunity to indulge some deeply satisfying tendencies that defy explication in terms of standards of objective journalism or scientific rigor. Note the undeniable strands of millenarian and/or apocalypic outcomes in so many of the discussions. Observe the aescetic tendency (the hairshirt of a zero carbon footprint). Hope for salvation through good works (a/k/a green technologies). And so on . . . At the end of the day you have kids meeting the science requirement of their curriculum with a course in environmental citizenship rather than with math or biology.

    I am not mocking the passion, good faith or commitment of the participants in the discussion. Just noting that, if you want to understand the dynamic, you need to take note of the theological dimension.

  9. As Von Gayncacn pointed out in his seminal paper with George Leonard in 1963:

    “In terms of the game theory, we might say the universe is so constituted as to maximize play. The best games are not those in which all goes smoothly and steadily toward a certain conclusion, but those in which the outcome is always in doubt.”

  10. Sorry to be off-topic but the mission of Baseline Scenario as stated in its tagline is:

    “What happened to the global economy and what we can do about it”

    You can’t miss it, it’s on the top right of every page. Now, I’ve seen a lot about the “what happened to the global economy” part. But I don’t think there’s much about the “what we can do about it”.

    At least at Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith is pushing her readers to take part in a protest in Chicago (Oct. 25-27) during the American Bankers Association annual meeting.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2009/10/on-the-power-of-protests-join-one-against-banksters-in-chicago-oct-25-27.html

    Baseline Scenario could at least advertise it.

  11. Here are their proposals from back in 9/08. Perhaps they can consolidate any others they’ve made since then in a single post.

    The US:

    1. FDIC to extend deposit guarantees to all deposits at regulated financial institutions.

    2. Treasury to establish a preferred equity injection program for core finalcial institutions, and present them with two options for meeting capital requirements.

    3. Major fiscal stimulus package to restore confidence and encourage business investment.

    4. Direct measures to break the cycle of foreclosures and fire sales

    The World:

    1. Loosen fiscal and monetary policy “across the continent” (Their headline is “What the world needs to do, but then they talk about Europe? Alarms ringing?)

    Their Conclusion: Time to prepare a bigger program

    ” Policy makers should anticipate the possibility that credit markets will remain blocked and develop a Plan B that uses the balance sheet to draw an impassable line in the sand to stop creditor panics through bank recapitalization based on government acquisition of newly issued preferred stock. At the same time, the damage to the real economy should be combated through a combination of fiscal stimulus and programs to dampen the wave of foreclosures that threatens communities across the country.

    http://baselinescenario.com/baseline-080929/

  12. Agoraphobic Kleptomaniac

    I think the problem is the fact that if a journalist writes, “Jesus going to cause armageddon through climate change in next 5 years” he’ll sell more papers than if he writes “Carbon at highest PPM currently than past 300,000 years”.

    The best journalism is usually the quietest, only brought to the surface by specialized sources, like Baseline Scenario, who focus on these very mundane (to the common man) subjects and saying “hey, this here is important”.

  13. I meant what to do to get the government to do the right thing.

  14. And I worry that there really is no good mechanism to enforce accuracy on the Internet.

    I think there is such a mechanism: narrowly, it’s the comments, and more broadly, it’s the rest of the internet. In fact, the same mechanism is now being applied to print sources, including Superfreakonomics. After all, the first thing I heard about this book was that its chapter on climate change had serious flaws. The second thing I heard about it was that one of its authors was unapologetic about those flaws. I am living the fact-checking process. And this was all before I could even get the book in my local bookstore (yes, Jenny, they used to sell books in a store. It was a building, like a big house, where people went to buy stuff… never mind.)

    Essentially, fact-checking is now a crowd-sourced operation, done by anybody who cares enough to do it. If the topic is important enough, someone will care. Of course, as a result we have competing parties, with different interests, offering conflicting assessments of a work’s accuracy. This mechanism requires more skepticism and participation on the part of the reader than the old one did. But it also requires less submission to arbitrarily-chosen authorities.

    On balance, in the long run, I think crowd-sourced fact-checking will prove to be superior.

    Ultimately the Superfreakonomics controversy is a sign of a much, much bigger problem

    I guess my answer is that while the book may be the sign of a problem, the controversy is the sign of the solution.

  15. Charles H. Bryan

    “And I have the nagging sense that I have set my standards where they are convenient for me, not where they are best for the world.”

    Oh, if only more people would think like this more often. Thank you, James.

  16. A lot of people complain about bloggers not checking sources and being opinionated and all that. I am sure a lot of bloggers are like that, but not a lot of bloggers are really popular.

    There are just a handful bloggers with over 10k readers in each niche and they are the ones who check their sources, are insightful, and do their readers a great favor by writing.

    You and Simon are prime examples of that. Thank you.

  17. James,

    Many thanks for the sympathetic (in the best sense) reading of my McArdle posts. I’ve responded to this, sort of, over at Inverse Square, but the short form is that I think that what you do and what McArdle do have qualitative differences of practice (not to mention quality), and that the criticism I levy on her does not apply here.

  18. Also, as I would have said above if only I’d read the comment thread more carefully, that what I say over at my place at too great length is what fearitself says above very briefly: McArdle, or Leavitt and Dubner may be the problem; we are answer.

  19. That’s Tom Levenson, if it isn’t obvious.

  20. In the end, I believe it depends on how people react in the marketplace. Every time you spend a dollar you’re casting a vote. If you buy Levitt’s book out of curiousity, then you’re voting for a certain type of entertainment. Kind of like when you pay 50 cents to see the bearded lady at the “freak” show. No pun intended of course.

    If, on the other hand, you read the vast majority of posts written by people with Economics credentials/degrees and read what the scientists say about how their words were taken out of context and choose NOT to buy the book, you’re casting a vote for better fact checking and genuine representations of people’s views.

  21. I am not worried about bloggers fact-checking, if I consider something important I verify it one way or another

    what worries me about blogging and all this free content on the internet is the unanswered question: where is the money coming from or else are all these bloggers such idealist that they are giving away their time for free. If so, how come they can afford to do that, don’t they have any bread-winning to do. I am retired with absolutely no paid for work to be done but find just reading this blog a pretty time consuming hobby. So how and where and why’s the money?

    On the other hand I am of course delighted with all this free access and content and often entlightening discussion offered on the net but todate I have spent almost no money on it except for buying books!!! (normal old fashioned books by popular authors, some of whom I got to “know” via podcasts of their book tours) and clothes. So who does finance all the rest?

  22. There are now job listings in student newspapers to post blog comments and blog posts in favor of certain positions. I think this explains a lot of comments.