Uncharted Territory

October 12, 2009

Superfreakonomics, Oliver Burkeman, Hubris and Bounded Rationality

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Hubris meets rationality…

I very much enjoyed Freakonomics. I see from the position of the bookmark in the copy on my shelf that I’ve read past halfway, so it must have been good. I recollect that I was particularly impressed by the discussion of the absence of ill-effects of a policy of random selection of pupils by over-subscribed schools in Chicago, clearly the fairest solution. In fact, I remembered the discussion of random selection in Freakonomics just last week when I read of a rant by a Mike Best, Headteacher, Beaminster school, Dorset:

“It was George III who said that the pathway to hell was paved with good intentions, and so it is with Labour initiatives. They have ranged from the mad (random allocation of school places)…”

Sir, George III was famously mad, and, if I recollect any history at all, died before the Labour party was even formed…

Unlike George III, the Freakonomics authors, Levitt and Dubner, urge policy to be made on the basis of dispassionate analysis of data. And not, perhaps, on the say so of so-called experts with a vested interest.

Considering myself an arch-rationalist, I eagerly read an article by Oliver Burkeman in today’s Guardian discussing the sequel to Freakonomics, Superfreakonomics. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The reviewer’s comments make interesting reading too. Burkeman writes, for example, that:

“Those arrested on charges of terrorism, [the authors] explain, are disproportionately likely to rent their home, have no savings account or life insurance, be a student, and have both Muslim first and last names. Superfreakonomics makes no mention of the possibility that the police might simply be targeting Muslims disproportionately, and Levitt seems genuinely baffled that anyone might object, on civil-liberties grounds, to targeting all those who fulfilled the relevant criteria.”

Burkeman seems to be implying that he believes behaviour likely to lead to arrest on charges of terrorism is evenly distributed throughout the population, and that Muslims are therefore being targeted unfairly. Maybe I’m missing something here, and I don’t want to offend anyone, but isn’t the main terrorist threat at present from Muslim extremists? Just as a while back the main threat in the UK was from Irish nationalists? Or are these social phenomena just a figment of my imagination? Maybe in WWII British soldiers took more Germans than Americans prisoner just because they were targeting them disproportionately.

But this is nothing compared to Burkeman’s discussion of Superfreakonomics’ espousal of the geo-engineering plan to block out sunlight by “pumping large quantities of sulphur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere through an 18-mile-long hose, held up by helium balloons…”. Apparently, Nathan Myhrvold is promoting the idea. He should know better as well.

Anthropogenic stratospheric SO2 injection is a complete and utter non-starter, for the simple fact that warming isn’t the only problem caused by CO2 emissions. This has been very well known for some time. Conferences have been held to discuss the problem. I’d have expected Burkeman to know this.

5 minutes thought might cause one to wonder as to the biological effects (the impact on ecosystems, crop yields…) of decreasing light reaching the Earth’s surface – at the same time as CO2 levels are increasing. And you’d still have time to realise that we’d have to keep squirting SO2 into the stratosphere indefinitely, because it only stays up there for a short while, whereas the warming CO2 will remain in the atmosphere until we stop emitting it and/or do something to get the level in the atmosphere back to pre-industrial levels. Any disruption of the SO2 hosing process for any reason (war, terrorism, economic dislocation, court injunctions…) would lead to rapid temperature increases, because the CO2 would no longer be masked. And before the egg-timer rang you’d realise that any hint of adverse side-effects would make the plan entirely impractical on political grounds.

Myhrvold and the Freakos (sounds like a 60s rock band, don’t it?) have, it seems, walked into the hubristic trap of believing they understand the whole problem. Messing with the biosphere and the climate system requires other forms of analysis than the correlation of data-sets and a good understanding of the importance of the role of incentives in explaining human behaviour. The authors have exceeded their intellectual authority – they are skilled at analysing “closed” economic problems (where the boundary can easily be defined), but don’t seem to appreciate that tackling global warming is an “open” problem. I’m particularly astonished at this given their background as behavioural economists – I can hardly believe they are not aware of the concept of “bounded rationality“.

All Burkeman does is lamely point out that:

“The primary objection to this plan, as with other ‘geoengineering’ schemes, is that there’s no predicting the unknown negative effects of meddling in such a complex natural system. And it’s strange, given how much is made in both Freakonomics books of the law of unintended consequences, that they don’t mention this in the context of Myhrvold’s plan.”

Quite. But Oliver, they can’t even deal with the known knowns, let alone even the known unknowns. You don’t need to fret about the unknown unknowns!

The geo-engineering twaddle is all a shame, as Superfreakonomics apparently argues that:

“The problem with trying to reduce carbon emissions … is that the incentives are all wrong. Too many of the benefits are ‘externalities’, from which the people making the sacrifices will never benefit – and the whole history of economics demonstrates that such completely unself-interested behaviour is impossible to implement on a large scale, especially when so many people suspect that their sacrifice would not, in fact, make a significant difference to the outcome.”

I wouldn’t underestimate the potential of peer-pressure – as Burkeman puts it, “our self-interest can include a desire for the warm glow of acting in a moral or charitable way” – but I doubt this will be enough. Surprisingly, Burkeman doesn’t press this argument against the economists – whose profession has been known to not fully understand that there IS such a thing as society – but tails off into incoherence after noting that:

“This, of course, is desperately tricky territory. My immediate personal response is that Levitt’s view is irresponsible defeatism, which I find repugnant.”

“Repugnant”???!!! I’m with Levitt here. We all need to grow up and face facts.

Don’t squirt SO2 into the sky because, if this is the level of intellectual debate on how to deal with global-warming, all I can say is that we need the heavens to help us! (If I may be permitted to pluralise in a cryptic nod to Battlestar Galactica – buy the box-set if you don’t know what the frak I’m on about!).


1 Comment »

  1. Boy, have Levitt & Dubner upset the guys at Realclimate! It’s not just the SO2 business either. Superfreakonomics apparently contains some other hilarious nonsense.

    Embarrassing. I’d probably enjoy reading Superfreakonomics but I don’t want to encourage them (note this example of a market signal). Don’t nobody be getting it for my Christmas present, now.

    Comment by Tim Joslin — November 2, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

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