Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Oh Ouch! Kolbert Smacks Down Levitt and Dubner and All Economists in the Process

Elizabeth Kolbert in her Dubner and Levitt smackdown piece in The New Yorker throws in this haymaker:

"Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science—or, for that matter, in science of any kind."

This is in reference to the now infamous chapter in their new book about geo-engineering solutions to climate change. I am not about to touch that with a ten-foot pole, go knock yourselves out with a little google search, but this is a low blow.

Okay, so economists like to think of themselves as a type of scientist - we make models, we test them in 'nature,' heck we even do controlled experiments, so we use scientific method - but we are merely social scientists. One presumes that Kolbert considers science to be only of the natural kind (though one could argue that the distinction between human and non-human is not terribly relevant when we look at behaviors influenced by incentives - are dogs and humans much different?). So even though economists have pretty advanced training in math and statistics, apparently in Kolbert's mind, these are 'formal' sciences and are, therefore, inferior.

But Kolbert says "science of any kind," and this is simply untrue. Besides I bet that at least as undergrads Levitt and Dubner had classes in natural science so what do we consider that? Taking this kind of snarky and superior attitude, and resorting to ad-homonym attacks is beneath Kolbert and The New Yorker. But it interests me because this, and the greater outrage over Levitt and Dubner's book chapter, seems to me a symptom of the poisoned debate that human induced climate change has become. Sure, it is true that for years climate scientists had to struggle to be heard and taken seriously, but that has now, finally, changed. The correct thing to do is take the high road and not engage in the same type bad behavior that was directed to them. It is hard to see how progress will be made without it.

For the record, Levitt and Dubner push this 'economists are coldly rational and can therefore see what the rest of you emotional weenies can't' thing way, way too far and in this way are a bit of an embarrassment to economists in general, who are generally pretty nice (really!) but do tend to tell really bad jokes.

And also for the record, I call myself a social scientist - you can make of that whatever you like - but I make no claims to omniscience (except to my kids).


Chuck said...

A post on Greg Makiw's economics blog directly addresses the personality type of economists.
See the post here:

Jeff Alworth said...

I wouldn't call that quote an ad hominem attack--and methinks you have let professional loyalties cloud your reading of Kolbert's piece.

You're right, that's a little tough language, but she's responding to a chapter in which the Freakonomists write, “Once you eliminate the moralism and the angst, the task of reversing global warming boils down to a straightforward engineering problem. For anyone who loves cheap and simple solutions, things don’t get much better.”

It's exactly this kind of comment that has brought the two such trouble. There's no way to read that as an economic argument. If the guy at the end of the bar makes the same comment, you want to know, "who the hell are you and what's your evidence?" That's why Kolbert's comment is fair.

If you're going to wade into a very politically-charged discussion and declare yourself an expert and your foes moralistic and scared, you deserve the blowback you just solicited. In order for the climate debate to produce anything like workable outcomes, it needs to be predicated on scientific research by those in the field. Kolbert's critique is perfectly fair.

I have heard you rail against non-economists making uninformed analyses of public policy. It's fair to point out that they don't know their arses from a hole in the ground. Goose, gander, right?

zhiyi said...

Regarding science, I bet Kolbert's statement was influenced by Pierrehumbert's simple math dissection:

You're right that Kolbert went too far in general, but not on this instance.

Given that most economists pride themselves on math and/or science, it's quite an embarrassment on the profession.

Patrick Emerson said...

Ah, good comments. Nothing like a little climate change discussion to heat things up.

Jeff, I take your point. And you are right, if one is espousing a professional opinion, it is quite right to ask how qualified one is to make that point. I was referring specifically to her taking it one step further and dismissing Levitt as someone without any scientific training. It is fine to say he is not a climate scientist, but she went one better and you could feel the anger coming through (as if the horseshit bit were not enough) this is what I think she should have left behind.

Zhiyi, I would suspect that Dubner and Levitt would just say, we are just reporting what Myhrvold said!

Both comments make me wonder what makes something a piece of reporting and something authoritative? People seem especially mad because they suppose that there is something authoritative about an economist talking about this stuff. To me, it is a bit or reporting and opinion and not in any way authoritative and perhaps this is why I am not especially riled by it. For example, if it was just Dubner's book (i.e. a reporter's book) would anyone care as much - then it would be just about Myhrvold and people could get upset at him.

Jeff Alworth said...

For example, if it was just Dubner's book (i.e. a reporter's book) would anyone care as much - then it would be just about Myhrvold and people could get upset at him.

I think it's more a function of the overwhelming success of the first book which then led to a Freakonomics franchise, including a blog on the NYT. If this were someone of Sy Hersh's stature, for example (reporter for the New Yorker), I think it would be getting just as much attention.

The degree to which Dubner and Levitt's voices are creating waves are consonant with the size of their megaphone (more than a regular university academic, less than a Fox News host).