The whole conceit behind “SuperFreakonomics” and, before that, “Freakonomics,” which sold some four million copies, is that a dispassionate, statistically minded thinker can find patterns and answers in the data that those who are emotionally invested in the material will have missed. (The subtitle of “Freakonomics,” published in 2005, is “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.”) In this way, Levitt and Dubner claim to have solved the mystery of why crime, after soaring in the nineteen-eighties, dropped in the nineteen-nineties. (The explanation, they say, is the legalization of abortion, some eighteen years earlier.) They also have proved—at least to their own satisfaction—that names like Ansley and Philippa will be popular for girls in the coming decade, that reading to your kids doesn’t matter, and that drunks should be encouraged to drive rather than walk.Their proposed climate-change solution:
“Once you eliminate the moralism and the angst, the task of reversing global warming boils down to a straightforward engineering problem,” Levitt and Dubner write. All we need to do is figure out a way to shoot huge quantities of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere on our own. This could be done, they say, by sending up an eighteen-mile-long hose: “For anyone who loves cheap and simple solutions, things don’t get much better."A solution which causes this reviewer to seethe:
But what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” isn’t the authors’ many blunders; it’s the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are. Leaving aside the question of whether geoengineering, as it is known in scientific circles, is even possible—have you ever tried sending an eighteen-mile-long hose into the stratosphere?—their analysis is terrifyingly cavalier."Alluring and dangerous"? Changing "how we see ourselves"? "terrifyingly cavalier"? When I first read this, I was surprised at how someone could react with such emotion to climate change -- and what a unique and interesting venue for taking the moral high ground! Kudos!
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Though Levitt and Dubner . . . manage to anticipate [Al]Gore’s position. The two argue that his views are the ones that rest on magical thinking. “If you think like a cold-blooded economist instead of a warm-hearted humanist, Gore’s reasoning doesn’t track,” they write. “It’s not that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don’t want to stop, or aren’t willing to pay the price.” Here the two have a point. By the end of [Gore's book] “Our Choice,” it may be clear that we possess the tools needed to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions, but the book has also shown—intentionally or not—that deploying them would require a lot from us. It would mean changing the way we eat, shop, manufacture, and get around, and, ultimately, how we see ourselves. It is the difficulty of imagining such changes that makes schemes like Levitt and Dubner’s at once so alluring and so dangerous.
Full disclosure, I don't really believe the depth with which one feels emotions or the capacity for empathy actually improves logical analysis. I am actually a fan of dispassionate, statistically minded thinking. Maybe if we had more of that we would have nuclear power everywhere instead of pumping carbon into the air by burning gas and coal. But of course we wouldn't do that, because nuclear power is somehow wrong -- and not really the problem here! Stop distracting from the fact that big corporations killed the electric car! And people refuse to buy produce from local farmers! Demonize! Idealize! I do think we could stand to eat less meat and stop certain agricultural subsidies, but because it makes sense to me -- not because I think they are morally wrong. I guess this is just one of those moral outrage things I will never really get (see also Octomom).