Four years ago, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner achieved the rarest of literary feats: Their counterintuitive book Freakonomics became a genuine nonfiction crossover hit, a best-seller beloved in academic departments and hair salons alike, praised by everyone from the Economist to O, The Oprah Magazine. Even academic economists loved the way they recast the dismal science as edgy, subversive -- cool.
With their new book, SuperFreakonomics, however, Levitt and Dubner have managed to become almost as hated by the economic establishment as they were adored for Freakonomics. This time, instead of praise, they're being tongue-lashed in congressional hearings and scourged across the academic and liberal communities, groups that once sang their praises. Representative Jay Inslee (D-Wash) called parts of it "an absolute deception" and said "we ought to blow the whistle on them." Paul Krugman, perhaps the only economist more widely known than Levitt right now, called the book "a counterintuitive train wreck."
Levitt and Dubner aren't about to go broke -- their first book sold 4 million copies, and SuperFreakonomics is already near the top of the bestseller lists. But the pair's trademark recipe of counterintuitive snark and lightweight econo-speak no longer dazzles the establishment. Instead, by pushing the envelope of contrarianism as entertainment, the pair may have forever traded stratospheric sales for the once-glowing approval of their intellectual-elite peers. What happened?
The fury centers on a chapter -- so infamous it's recognized in the blogosphere as simply "Chapter Five" -- which argues that global warming could be reversed by pumping tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, creating a sort of gassy heat shield. That in itself is a controversial proposition, since it basically advocates for more pollution in exchange for lower temperatures. But it's something climate scientists are at least willing to consider.
What really addles their newfound detractors, though, is the way Levitt and Dubner needlessly rely on the rhetorical tropes of the climate-denial community. They begin with a classic rope-a-dope anecdote relating scary climate change headlines -- only to reveal that said headlines refer to the unfounded and overhyped global-cooling scare of the 1970s. "These days," they go on, "the threat is the opposite" -- inviting readers to adopt the same sort of skepticism toward global warming (even though, unlike global cooling, it is supported by an overwhelming scientific consensus).
Other tricks abound: They take the low risk of a worst-case scenario -- a 5 percent chance that worldwide temperatures will rise 10 degrees Celsius -- and use it to cast doubt on the prospects of the planet warming at all. They even argue that carbon may not be the main cause of warming. The only reason this "complex" reality isn't better publicized, they say, is because for many, "global warming has taken on the feel of a religion." Finally, having debunked the global-warming faith, the pair admits that, yes, something should probably be done -- which leads them to propose the sulfur dioxide shield.