The Parable of Horseshit

November 9, 2009

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe, has written a scathing review of Levitt and Dubner’s imponderable geoengineering tripe in the New Yorker.

A taste:

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. A world whose atmosphere is loaded with carbon dioxide, on the one hand, and sulfur dioxide, on the other, would be a fundamentally different place from the earth as we know it. Among the many likely consequences of shooting SO2 above the clouds would be new regional weather patterns (after major volcanic eruptions, Asia and Africa have a nasty tendency to experience drought), ozone depletion, and increased acid rain. Meanwhile, as long as the concentration of atmospheric CO2 continued to rise, more and more sulfur dioxide would have to be pumped into the air to counteract it. The amount of direct sunlight reaching the earth would fall, even as the oceans became increasingly acidic. There are eminent scientists—among them the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen—who argue that geoengineering should be seriously studied, but only with the understanding that it represents a risky, last-ditch attempt to avert catastrophe.


  1. But Ben, they’re hiply counter-intuitive!

  2. The near-silence of the journalism trade re NYT staffer Dubner’s role speaks volumes. It’s as if the most prestigious Pulitzer of all is a virtual one for getting rich writing popular books.

  3. I find it ironic that the scathing review itself cites a Nobel Prize-winning chemist as supporting studying geoengineering, even if only for last-ditch purposes.

    If you read the chapter from SuperFreakonomics, that is all the Authors are asking for – that geoengineering be studied, along with the other solution (lowering CO2 emissions).

    Then a cost-benefit analysis must be done comparing and contrasting the two solutions.

    It really doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me to study geoengineering, to see if it is vastly cheaper and to see if it is more dangerous than lowering CO2 emissions.

  4. As you may have already read, I think the ethics of geoengineering go well beyond what any cost-benefit analysis will tell us:



    • I did read those posts, and I agree that the ethics of geoengineering need to be considered.

      However, how do we do that if we don’t study geoengineering – so we can look at the costs and benefits.

      For example, if Africa really bears the brunt of large volcanic eruptions (or geoengineered artificial eruptions) then that is a cost.

      But how can an intelligent comparision be made without better data on what will happen under each solution.

      How can we get that data without studying each solution.

      Quite a few people seem to be arguing against even studying geoengineering – because this solution doesn’t fit in with their politically preferred solution.

      I think that is foolish.

      Study all solutions.

      Look at the costs and benefits.

      Look at the ethics.

      Then decide.

      Lets not decide, without study, to even try to get enough information to properly evaluate the scientific merit, costs and benefits and ethics of any potential solution.

  5. RickA, sulfate injection is indeed being studied, by Caldeira among others. Levitt, Dubner, Myrhvold and Wood (not one of whom is a subject expert) aren’t going to get it studied any more by pretending it’s some sort of magic bullet for global warming. Their claim that it might be is unadorned wishful thinking, and try as they might they can’t magic such thinking into being an appropriate basis for global public policy. If you want to do so, you first have to disprove my carefully-considered thesis that, with just a bit more research, we will all be able to lead our lives consistent with wishes being fishes. I mean, just imagine how great it will be to have permanently solved the world’s food supply problem!

  6. Steve Bloom, Levitt and Dubner didn’t argue that sulfate injection was a magic bullet (at least that is my recollection of the chapter). They argued that it deserved a seat at the table of possible solutions and should be further studied. Sulfate injection may not be a very good solution – it may even be a terrible solution – or it could be a great solution – but only careful scientific study will determine that. I am glad it is being studied further. I really don’t understand the huge controversy about their new book.

  7. They claimed to understand the problem.
    They obviously didn’t, and relied on people who didn’t do the math.

  8. They did make that claim, RickA, or more precisely said that it was plausible as a magic bullet despite definitive evidence to the contrary. Wishful thinking won’t change that. The question for you is why you’re so receptive to such crap. L+D at least have the excuse of getting rich on their book.

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