19 Oct 2009

SuperFight Claims Naive Academic

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After this post, I am not going to bother weighing in on this particular issue anymore, because at this point you need a flowchart to keep things straight. Joe Romm has started a humongous blogosphere attack on the new Superfreakonomics book, the worst charge of which is that the authors misrepresented the views of the one climate scientist they really interviewed, and didn’t even give the poor guy a chance to review the relevant material before the book went to print.

But then Dubner (one of the Freako authors) claims in this post that the scientist (Caldeira) did sign off on the material. More important (according to Dubner’s tale), the scientist Caldeira admitted this in an email to Joe Romm before Romm’s post aired, and even wrote:

“The only significant error…is the line: ‘carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.’ That is just wrong and I never would have said it. On the other hand, I f&@?ed up. They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.

Everyone got that? Assuming Dubner isn’t fabricating this email exchange, Caldeira told Romm that he had signed off on the draft and that even though they misrepresented his views on one major point, it was his own fault for not telling them so, and they acted in good faith.

OK, so how do our friends Krugman and Romm deal with this? Krugman dismisses it as “legalistic quibbling.” Yes, I guess in the sense that if I say, “Bob Wenzel confessed over email to me that he killed JFK from the grassy knoll,” and then Wenzel forwards the DA our exchange where he actually said, “I bet somebody killed JFK from the grassy knoll, but it wasn’t me”–then that too would be legalistic quibbling.

Romm does a better job of defending his honor. In response to Dubner’s version of events, Romm writes:

I wrote Caldeira:

Are you telling me that the authors did not send you galleys for comment but you got them third hand from Nathan?

He wrote me back:

That is correct, not the entire chapter, but a section was forwarded to me by Nathan. I searched through it quickly, looking for the parts that discussed me, and did not give the whole process very much attention at the time. In general I feel no need to read, fact check, or make detailed comments on documents that arrive in my in-box. I have lots of other things to do, like trying to get my science out the door.

Soooo. Assuming nobody is actually fabricating emails here, I think what probably happened is that this poor climate scientist Caldeira was excited to be interviewed by the illustrious Levitt and Dubner. (Maybe they did some sumo moves on him.) Then he was busy with stuff and signed off on the chapter without reading it carefully. (This has happened to me once or twice, where an editor has “punched something up” a bit from my first draft, given me a chance to fix it, and I don’t catch the change. Then it goes out under my name, and I cringe because I end up sounding harsher than I intended.)

Then Joe Romm gets his hands on an advance copy, goes ape-poopy, and contacts Caldeira. Caldeira realizes he’s screwed, and tries to backpedal out of it, trying to let Romm know that he doesn’t hold the nutjob views of the Superfreaks, but at the same time he knows that they didn’t purposely distort his views. So he tries to placate Romm by saying that he only reviewed a third-hand copy.

Now think about this: You are Levitt and Dubner, and you just interviewed a whole team of people who work for a company. Are you going to send an email to every recipient? Or do you think you might just send one copy to the contact person at the firm, and expect that guy/woman to circulate it among the firm’s employees and get one batch of feedback? Keep in mind, Levitt and Dubner must have interviewed dozens, maybe hundreds, of people for the book–everyone’s talking about one guy interviewed for one chapter.

I’m not saying this is what happened, but it makes sense out of all the stipulated emails. It looks like poor Caldeira is yet another academic who is now caught in the political crossfire. These people (on both sides) are serious, Mr. Caldeira, so watch yourself in the future. Trillions of dollars are at stake, with the partisans of one side thinking they are averting widespread death, and partisans on the other side thinking they are preserving liberties from a tyrannical government.

I said from the beginning that I agreed with Krugman that the Freako guys were not fairly representing the views of economist Martin Weitzman. I only hope some progressives can publicly call out the fact that Joe Romm clearly misrepresented what Caldeira said happened to him. When someone says, “I f&@?ed up. They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.” and then Romm goes ahead and writes his first post, that’s not exactly truthful.

Romm has not disavowed the alleged email, he has simply pointed to other emails where Caldeira tells a different version. For Romm to not mention Caldeira’s admission is incredibly dishonest. It doesn’t mean the Freako guys are right, or that climate change is no big deal. I would love to see some progressives come out and criticize Romm on this one. After all, Glenn Greenwald has the cajones to criticize Democrats when they use absurd tactics in their defense of Obama. What do you say, guys? You’re allowed to admit when someone from your team overreaches in his zeal to save the planet. It would be very refreshing.

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