I don’t know enough about climate science to critique much of what Levitt/Dubbner write, but there’s something that gets me because it’s so typical:
“The problem with solar cells is that they’re black.” Try googling “solar cells” — [Nathan, you can Bing “solar cells”] — and most of the panels you’ll see are in fact blue. I’ll call this half a howler. Lots of the cells are black. As we’ll see, however, it is NOT a problem. This is a bogus issue.
Now, I’m sure Levitt/Dubner would say this is a small thing, call off the pedant police, blah blah blah and so on. But the trouble is anecdotes (that’s sort of what this is, though it’s a bit worse) define a lot of our discourse. Al Gore said he invented the internet! The Clinton people took the “W” keys off the type writer! And this isn’t the first time Levitt/Dubner have gone in for an anecdotal whopper — Felix Salmon busted them peddling the “Shithead” urban legend in their last book.
The great thing about anecdotes is when you get busted on them, you can just say “who cares?” even if your entire methodology is built on anecdotes. I’m not saying that Freakonomics’ entire methodology is built on anecdotes, but David Brooks’ work (for example) is and his snotty, arrogant reply to Sasha Issenberg’s fact check of a Brooks Atlantic piece illustrates this perfectly:
I called Brooks to see if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. “I didn’t see it when I was there, but it’s true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn,” he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. “That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end … ” he replied, his voice trailing away. “That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but Id id have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20.”[…..]
“What I try to do is describe the character of places, and hopefully things will ring true to people,” Brooks explained. “In most cases, I think the way I describe it does ring true, and in some places it doesn’t ring true. If you were describing a person, you would try to grasp the essential character and in some way capture them in a few words. And if you do it as a joke, there’s a pang of recognition.”
The dishonesty of all this is amazing. Brooks eats at a few chain restaurants in lieu of doing actual research; and then when he can’t milk enough meaning out of the baby-back ribs and Jack Daniels chicken, he just starts making things up. What Levitt/Dubner do, I’m afraid, isn’t so different. Levitt admits he does “economics of pimping” type stuff because it’s so difficult to get ahead going traditional research. And then, not content with that, he has to lie in order to sex up his already lightweight, sexed up book.