Monday, October 26, 2009

We Can't All Be Right; So What Works? More Super Freakonomics Debate, Trolls, And Creation

After I wrote the post on the Super Freakonomics controversy regarding global warming/climate change, the controversy actually grew larger. Most notably when economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman got involved. I have included the second rebuttal by the Super Freakonomics team and I find it quite interesting how they are dealing with their critics criticisms. In fact they aren’t really arguing with their critics at all. They are merely outlining more definitively on the issues and more importantly what issue they are actually examining.

We are answering a different question than our critics.

Our question, at noted above, is what is the cheapest, fastest way to quickly cool the Earth. Like every question we tackle in Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we approach the question like economists, using data and logic to conclude that the answer to that question is geo-engineering. Not coincidentally, almost every economist who has asked the same question has come to the same conclusion, including Martin Weitzman and the economists at the Copenhagen Consensus.

But that is not the question that Al Gore and the climate scientists are trying to answer. The sorts of questions they tend to ask are “What is the ‘right’ amount of carbon to emit?” or “Is it moral for this generation to put carbon into the air when future generations will pay the price?” or “What are the responsibilities of humankind to the planet?”

Unlike the question that we are asking — How can we most efficiently cool the Earth fast? — the types of questions that environmentalists are trying to answer mix together both scientific issues and moral/ethical issues. If you have any doubts about this, watch Al Gore’s movie, in which he says explicitly that reducing carbon emissions is not a political issue, but a moral issue.

That is why someone like Ken Caldeira can agree with the facts presented in our chapter, say that the chapter is written in good faith, but still disagree with the conclusion that geoengineering is the answer. It is because the question Ken Caldeira is trying to answer is not the question we are trying to answer. The same is true of our critics. But instead of just making this simple point — that we are asking different questions — the critics have either intentionally or unintentionally confused the issues by making all sorts of extraneous arguments.

I do not mean to imply that the question we answer in the book is the most important question. It may be that the questions that environmentalists are trying to ask are more important and more interesting, but that certainly does not mean that we don’t want to know the answer to our question, a question that the environmentalists don’t bother to ask very often because they are focused on their more philosophical questions.

So for all the blogosphere shouting against our chapter, I have to be honest and say that I just don’t get it. I can’t understand why any environmentalist who really cares about the Earth’s future could say with a straight face that geoengineering doesn’t deserve a seat at the table as the global-warming debate heats up.

This is why I have always been interested in economics. Especially the economics of social issues. I definitely have an idealist side to me. Being an optimist by nature I have a predisposition to strive for the way things should be. Although I am proud of that quality, it can be a dangerous trait as you are susceptible to having the blinders on. Economists are important because they study the science of incentives. Their study is the study of creating action. I read another extremely insightful post (as always) from Seth Godin regarding what he calls “trolls.” Here is what he had to say about trolls:

Lots of things about work are hard. Dealing with trolls is one of them. Trolls are critics who gain perverse pleasure in relentlessly tearing you and your ideas down. Here's the thing(s):

1. trolls will always be trolling
2. critics rarely create
3. they live in a tiny echo chamber, ignored by everyone except the trolled and the other trolls
4. professionals (that's you) get paid to ignore them. It's part of your job.

"Can't please everyone," isn't just an aphorism, it's the secret of being remarkable.

I love number 2. Critics rarely create. I am not advocating abandoning debate and philosophical exploration. However there are times, as illustrated by the Super Freakonomics crew controversy, where it may be more important to stop debating what is right and start creating what will work. I am not saying stop moral debates, however each side of any issue feels that they are right. We cannot all be right, especially if we are on opposite ends of the spectrum. So there are times where maybe we should move onto agreeing on what can work....and what can work now. If you think this only applies to global warming you are wrong. Look at all the politically significant and unfortunately politically stagnant issues that consistently arise in Washington. Just a thought….


Cameron Schaefer said...

Very well thought reply by the Super Freakonomics team. The fact that economists tend to take a lot of the romance and emotion out various arguments and focus instead on the numbers is often a huge benefit.

For another look at the environment from an economist's perspective, check out "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming" by Bjorn Lomborg.

He is one of the economists they are referring to when they mention, "the Copenhagen Consensus."

He basically argues that the complex and incredibly pricey methods being considered to cut carbon emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, will have very little impact on the world's temperature and that the billions of dollars could be much better utilized fighting malaria, HIV/AIDS, etc.

Matt Bader said...

I just saw Steve Leavitt on The Daily Show and watching his defense was even more impressive in person. He basically said that he is not denying climate change at all. He is just saying that we should be trying to find the cheapest, fastest, best way to solve the most cataclysmic predictions of global warming if they come true.