[Marxism] Superfreakonomics is dead on arrival

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 28 12:49:48 MDT 2009

Due to its climate change denial, and thanks largely to online 
media, Superfreakonomics is dead on arrival.

By Sahil Kapur
October 26, 2009

Economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner’s new book, 
Superfreakonomics, the follow-up to their successful Freakonomics, 
invites readers to question the realities and causes of climate 
change. By crafting clever, counterintuitive explanations as to 
why the phenomenon is largely illusory, Levitt and Dubner expect 
the reader to walk away reconsidering global warming—a theory 
that, among scientists, is about as controversial as evolution.

Unsurprisingly, the authors have had the opposite effect of what 
they intended. With their shoddy reporting and parsing of 
empirical data, Levitt and Dubner have unwittingly helped expose 
global warming denial for the farce that it is. The book has been 
out for less than a week, but climate scientists and independent 
bloggers have already thoroughly dissected (and in some cases 
demolished) Superfreakonomics’ flurry of erroneous claims and 
harebrained logic, which are front and center in the chapter: 
"What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?"

But obscured by the well-warranted attacks on the legitimacy of 
Superfreakonomics’ assertions is the fact that in the tome’s 
aftermath, America quietly saw a huge victory for democracy and 
common sense—all courtesy of online media.

Joseph Romm, expert for the Climate Progress, a project of Campus 
Progress‘ parent organization the Center for American Progress, 
fired the backlash’s opening salvo with a series of blog posts 
challenging Superfreakonomics’ global warming allegations. Romm’s 
work was then echoed by influential economists Paul Krugman and 
Brad DeLong, along with popular progressive writers like Ezra 
Klein and Matt Yglesias. Like wildfire, the blowback spread to the 
Huffington Post and Daily Kos before setting ablaze Facebook, 
Twitter, and aggregator venues like Digg. In other words, you only 
missed it if you weren’t paying attention.

Sixteen years ago, Levitt and Dubner could have been to the 
impending climate change bill what right-wing charlatan Betsy 
McCaughey was to the Clinton health care effort. After 
Clinton-care was demolished, mostly by fierce propaganda and a 
conservative Congress, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich lauded 
McCaughey’s disingenuous and error-laden New Republic article “No 
Exit,” calling it the health care plan’s "first decisive 
breakpoint." Unfortunately, online media outlets were too feeble 
to patch the holes in the flailing Clinton ship, while traditional 
news organizations failed to tackle McCaughey’s blemished logic 
head-on. As a result, health care reform crumbled, leading to 
skyrocketing premiums and tens of millions losing coverage in the 
following decade.

Fortunately for the Obama administration, Superfreakonomics 
arrived in the era of robust Internet media. Instead of the book 
harnessing enough wind to shift the political tides, possibly 
sinking a long-awaited and much-needed policy transformation, it’s 
dead on arrival. In fact, Levitt and Dubner are already 
backtracking, whining about being misinterpreted and about being 
attacked for their careeristic pageantry. The extensive uproar the 
book has received on the internet has helped embed into the 
American consciousness the dangers of global warming denial, 
wherever it exists.

Indeed, this episode showed us in real time the opportunities 
available in the new era of accountability journalism. No longer 
are we dependent on establishment journalists to hold accountable 
establishment politicos, who are all too often in league with each 
other. No longer must we sit idly by as spectators, harrowed by 
our helplessness to promulgate truth.

What’s most inspiring about this book’s public demise is that it 
reveals the opportunities for regular people to influence the 
direction of a society—through blogs, social networks, and online 
media. Today, each of us has an unprecedented capacity to debunk 
errant nonsense and spread the truth, building a more educated 
populace and as a result helping actualize democratic values in 
practice, rather than merely in theory.

This is just the beginning of a long trend. Independent media 
outlets, with their capacity to permeate ideas across a society, 
are rising in influence over not only constituents but also 
mainstream journalists, opinion-makers, and legislators, all of 
whom construct the apparatus of our economic and social structure.

Realistically, Superfreakonomics or not, some Americans will 
continue to believe there is no limit to how much we can punish 
the planet without punishing ourselves. Luckily, as common-sense 
thinkers continue to face them and the challenges accompanying 
them, the tools now at our disposal will allow us to more 
effectively strike back.

Sahil Kapur is a regular contributor for The Huffington Post and 
The Guardian. He blogs at The Daily Musing.

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