Friday, December 04, 2009

Knee Jerk Liberal?

So I've been putting off reading the end of SuperFreakonomics, because the chapter I'm on, the climate change chapter, has been pissing me off. It's the same thing that nags at me about the rest of the book, but I do find myself getting more irritable about it. I'm kind of startled by my reaction, actually--is it because I consider their statistical claims to be more misleading here, or because the issue is more important? Or just because of their somewhat sycophantic fawning over the scientists who claim that climate change is really just a nutty nutty fad that can be fixed by adding more chemicals to the atmosphere.

And this is the thing. I have to assume that these very famous people--an academic and a journalist, no less--put a lot more research into this book than my instincts can counteract. And I even buy into the fact that the worst case scenarios regarding climate change are very unlikely, and that a lot of information we get about the environment is intended to scare us.

That makes perfect sense. Because the truth is just as ugly, but not as startling to a layman. If you hear about breeds of bugs that are dying in the rain forest, you don't freak out like you do about polar bears, or even bees. And if you don't freak out, you don't do anything about it. The information I get is intended to convey the message: this is a big deal. So I don't fault anyone for being "alarmist."

But let's take the idea the authors present of someone's plan to counter global warming by injecting chemicals into the atmosphere that duplicate a volcanic eruption. Major volcanic eruptions are followed by cool periods, because of the matter that gets up into the stratosphere and does whatever it is--diffuses sunlight, I suppose. They explain it in the book. So they want to counter global warming by duplicating that.

Now, let's think about that. Instead of stopping these effects, we'll do more crazy things to this incredibly complex system that is the environment and hope that there's no fallout from THIS plan. It reminds me of the fact that the same guy who invented leaded gasoline also invented aerosol spray cans. And you know he was so proud of himself, because the world knew he'd done good things.

Also, they criticize the alarmists on one page, pointing out that even the best climate models aren't great, because the system that is the environment is SO complex, and then then a few pages later they defend an idea that I think is quite counterintuitive using evidence based on--wait for it--climate models.

Now, I'm about to read their defense, the part of the chapter where they say, "some people call this idea crazy," and then go on to counter some points. Maybe they'll put my fears to rest. But I doubt it, for the same reason I'm not sold on drunk driving being better than drunk walking, or that a good deed done to feel good about yourself (even if no one else knows) is not truly altruistic.

Is this book making me cranky? Sort of, but just in a venting way. Until the environment chapter, I was having a blast.

Update: In my defense, it's not just my instincts that say they're wrong about global warming. Here are some links about what's wrong with Chapter 5 of SuperFreakonomics.

William M. Connolley
Tim Lambert
Joe Romm Part I
Joe Romm Part II
Union of Concerned Scientists

I admit that I got all these references from each other, and that I don't know the players in this field, and so have only heard of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But my point is that there's a lot of debunking going on right now.

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