Field of Science

Steven Levitt takes a beating

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, University of Chicago professor in geophysics, thoroughly dismantles Steven Levitt's claim* as presented in Superfreakonomics that "it [is] pointless to try to solve global warming by building solar cells, because they are black and absorb all the solar energy that hits them, but convert only some 12% to electricity while radiating the rest as heat, warming the planet."

In an open letter to Levitt, Pierrehumbert uses very simple math to make it clear how bogus that claim is. Along the way we learn how pathetically small an area of the globe would have to be covered with solar cell to meet the whole world's electricity demands. Placed in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, I contend that the negative effects it would have on humans and wildlife there would be worth the benefit.

The question of Levitt's negligence is important for two reasons. 1) Global warming is a serious issue, and it would hurt us all if such bogus claims get a foothold, turning public opinion against ideas that can alleviate the problem. 2) After reading Freakonomics, I felt elated by Levitt's approach, and baffled by many of the facts that he unearths. I wish to be able to continue to trust his word, but with such negligence it gets harder.

Now I'll be eagerly waiting for a reply from Levitt. I'll applaud him if he apologizes...

* Actually, the claim was made by Nathan Myhrvold, but the whole point of Pierrehumbert's letter is that Levitt should have been more critical of this claim before reiterating it in his book.

Update 11/27/09:
Elizabeth Kolbert takes on Superfreakonomics in The New Yorker. She concludes like this.
To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.

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