24 Jun 2010

Jim Manzi vs. Mark Levin

Climate Change 9 Comments

Wow, I don’t know what to make of this. Jim Manzi let fly a pretty scathing critique of Mark Levin’s treatment of global warming in his massive bestseller, Liberty and Tyranny (which people tell me cites one of my PRI op eds, so it must not be all bad). I’m not sure if this had been just a random blog post that caught the NR guys by surprise, or if Manzi had cleared it with them first. In any event, I was amazed to see this type of paragraph on the NR blog:

I’m not expert on many topics the book addresses, so I flipped to its treatment of a subject that I’ve spent some time studying — global warming — in order to see how it treated a controversy in which I’m at least familiar with the various viewpoints and some of the technical detail.

It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times — not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.

Yikes! In case you don’t know who he is, Jim Manzi is hands-down my favorite Internet Warrior when it comes to global warming issues. He can quote the IPCC chapter and verse to blow up the alarmist policy prescriptions. (For example, here he is blowing up Krugman on the argument that “fat tails” in the catastrophe probability distribution justify massive interventions.) So Manzi isn’t bluffing when he claims to be knowledgeable on this issue.

Anyway, where I am going in this post, is to share with you a jaw-dropping component of Levin’s response. But to appreciate it, I need to set the context.

One of the issues is that in his book (which remember, Manzi is giving a scathing review in his blog post at NR), Levin cited a petition denying the connection between human activities and global warming, apparently signed by 31,000 scientists. Manzi was underwhelmed by this and wrote:

There are a few problems with this survey that Levin doesn’t mention. More than 20,000 of these “scientists” lack PhDs in any field. There was very little quality control: At least one person signed it as Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. Scientific American did the hard work of actually contacting a sample of individual signatories, and estimated that there are about 200 climate scientists who agree with the statement in the petition among the signatories. And most important by far, the text of the petition is not close to Levin’s claim of rejecting the notion of man-made global warming. In the key sentence it says that signatories do not believe that there is compelling scientific evidence that human release of greenhouse gases will cause catastrophic heating and disruption of the earth’s climate. Depending on the definition of “catastrophic,” I could agree to that. Yet I don’t reject the notion of man-made global warming.

OK so now are you ready to hear Levin’s comeback on this particular point? Here it is:

I would also encourage you to look at the petition Manzi disparages, having, I’m sure, carefully reviewed the qualifications of each and every expert listed, as he dismisses the entire lot of them. He mentions that 20,000 of the signatories don’t have doctorates. But more than 9,000 do.

Even so, that alone is not the standard. Reading his post, one would think they’re all a bunch of kooks and frauds. He knows this because Scientific American did the hard work of taking a small sample of the group and contacting them. Now, how scientific is that? Global-warming bloggers have unfairly attacked this petition relentlessly. Manzi simply repeats the mantra. He even refers to the phony names on the list, which he hopes will degrade the effort, without realizing that global-warming zealots are responsible for inserting them. How embarrassing.

If you didn’t have to take a step back, and a deep breath, after reading that, then you didn’t get what just happened. It’s no fun to explain a joke, except in this case Levin wasn’t joking–he doesn’t understand how hilarious what he just wrote was. So permit me to explain.

In the pseudo-science wars, both sides will try to marshal authorities to show the public that their intuitive arguments have solid backing. One of the standard moves from those advancing unorthodox positions (whether from the Intelligent Design people, the “skeptics” of global warming, the fans of holistic medicine, or even economists who deny that government “stimulus” creates jobs) is to come up with an online petition that they urge qualified experts to sign. (Incidentally, I am NOT mocking these unorthodox groups. I actually am very sympathetic to a lot of their points.)

Now here’s the problem: Just because someone signs a petition as, “John Perrywinkle, nuclear physicist, NASA,” that alone doesn’t mean there really is a NASA physicist out there who agrees with the petition. We obviously have to worry about whether the people organizing the petition are actually verifying the identities of the “signatories.”

In order to show how insecure some of these petitions are, their enemies will log on and sign them with fake names. The dull enemies will put “Mickey Mouse” or “Donald Duck,” but that’s stupid because the people running the petition can quickly weed them out. So what wiseguy liberals will do, is put down an obviously fake name that stuffy conservatives likely won’t recognize from a simple inspection of the list–which is why Geri Halliwell is perfect. Her name isn’t as recognizable as, say, Madonna or Britney Spears, but on the other hand it’s almost certainly not referring to an atmospheric scientist with a PhD from Harvard who spells her name just like that.

Sooo, just to make sure we all see what’s going on here: The fact that the people maintaining this list of “31,000 scientists” didn’t purge “Geri Halliwell” (until presumably the cynics busted them) shows that we have little confidence that the remaining names are authentic. We would have to go and investigate each one; the existence of this list per se is rather pointless.

Now that I’ve belabored the point, let’s return to Levin’s riposte: “[Manzi] even refers to the phony names on the list, which he hopes will degrade the effort, without realizing that global-warming zealots are responsible for inserting them. How embarrassing.”

You’re right, Mr. Levin, I do feel embarrassed for someone right about now.

I realize I’m beating a dead horse, but I must persist: What exactly does Levin think that Manzi thought had happened? That the people organizing the petition said:

“Hmmm, right now we only have 30,999 credentialed scientists who signed this thing. It would really be nice to get one more to put us over the psychological threshold of 31,000. Who should we put down? Al Gore? Nah, we’d get busted. How about Carl Sagan? The wacko leftists love him. What’s that Tom, you say Sagan’s dead? OK, damn. Wait, I’ve got it! We all know the liberals love rock stars and pretty faces, rather than cold hard logic. Somebody go look up the real name of one of the Spice Girls, and better make it one of the hot ones. This will be great. I’d love to see Leonardo DiCaprio’s hypocritical face when he sees this.”

I mean really, did Levin not understand what just happened? Did he consider Manzi such a moron that he (Levin) didn’t even bother to try to contemplate what the argument was, before firing off his response? I am truly in awe.

9 Responses to “Jim Manzi vs. Mark Levin”

  1. Silas Barta says:

    So you agree with the statist theory of global warming?

    j/k Bob, I’m just imitating your reaction to whenever I say something sympathetic to “their side” 😉

  2. NOTAL says:

    You missed another “face-palm” bit from that Levin quote:
    “He knows this because Scientific American did the hard work of taking a small sample of the group and contacting them. Now, how scientific is that? ”

    Does he realize how science works? The vast majority of science is taking a relatively small sample, analyzing and observing it, and using statistical tools to extrapolate the findings to the whole. That’s what the empirical method is.

    “how scientific is that?”

    Very scientific

    • bobmurphy says:

      I didn’t miss it, I just didn’t want to distract from the beauty of the Spice Girls bit. Click on the actual article and read Levin talking about Zimbabwe. That’s a good one too. (To ease your suspense: Manzi had listed some of the major groups that endorsed AGW. So then Levin went to Wikipedia and found a similar list, and accused Manzi of just copying the list from Wikipedia. But the Wikipedia list contained the Zimbabwe Academy of Science or something, which Manzi hadn’t listed. So then Levin pointed that out sarcastically, as if he had somehow busted Manzi for NOT listing a group that everyone recognizes has no credibility, in support of Manzi’s position. I would normally have said, “It was the most bass-ackwards argument I’ve ever seen,” had it not been on the heels of the Spice Girls fiasco.)

  3. Robert Greenwood says:

    I find it amusing that Manzi, inspired by Ross Douthat’s article criticizing the conservative body for being a conglomerate of single-issue groups blind to the big picture, excoriates Levin based on a relatively minor point in the book and makes no attempt to address the merit of its entirety.

    Manzi gets all hung up on the reference to the “dodgy petition” and Levin’s failure to provide an ample answer to the question: “[D]oes carbon dioxide actually affect temperature levels?”. Manzi goes further and summarizes Levin’s arguments as “wingnuttery” because he only cites a few experts.

    By reading the entire book (a quick read I guess Manzi hadn’t time for), it is obvious that the intent of the book is to alert the general population to the rapidly increasing encroachment on our liberties. To this end, Liberty and Tyranny is quite effective. So it doesn’t defend against all of the “most obvious counter-arguments”. If he had, the book would be 2,000 pages long. Being short and concise, the book is less intimidating to the busy layman, to whom this book is more directed toward. I know several people who, after reading Liberty and Tyranny, began questioning conventional wisdom and have gone on to develop a passion for liberty and an understanding of free-market beauty.

    I’m not familiar with Jim Manzi’s other work, but judging by this review, he appears to have some sort of grudge against Levin , a conceited desire to show-off his knowledge of the global-warming issue, or simply a desire to increase his public profile by eliciting a response from Levin. If Manzi genuinely wishes to meet the “direct challenge” he speaks of, he should review some of Pat Buchanan’s books.

    Finally, I must agree that Levin’s counter-argument you cite is rather embarrassing =].

    • bobmurphy says:

      Actually, if Manzi has a failing (which is typified in this review) I think he wants too much to be christened “reasonable” by the liberal intelligentsia. I’m not saying that’s what motivated him here, but if you were going to psychoanalyze “what he really was doing,” that’s the route I would take. I don’t think he had a grudge against Levin; I believe Manzi when he said he went into this, expecting to find Levin talking common sense if not with Ivory Tower jargon.

  4. Arek says:

    So, just to clear up – you believe in global warming, but oppose government intervening to stop it?

    It’s actually a view that I hold and it’s pretty difficult to defend it. Little help? 😉

    • bobmurphy says:

      Well strictly speaking, from my post you wouldn’t know what my views on manmade global warming were. (I’m assuming you mean manmade global warming, not just global warming per se.) Even if Levin is right about there being no connection, his arguments are still bad and his response to Manzi is still hilarious.

      As far as my endorsement of the “scientific consensus,” I’m probably between Manzi and Levin. I mean, Levin is almost trying to prove a negative. I don’t think humans are responsible for 100% of the warming since the Industrial Revolution, but I’m not sure they are responsible for 0% of it (or less, meaning humans have made the globe cooler than it otherwise would have been). I definitely think the catastrophic projections should not be given nearly the weight that they are currently being given.

      Have you seen my journal article on this stuff?

      • stickman says:


        It seems odd to me that very little discussion in the USA has been given over to the “relative prices” argument for strong action against climate change. (Let me say just upfront that I’m taking the mainstream scientific view as gospel here and indulging the economics…)

        If you aren’t familiar with it, the following paper by Sterner and Persson encapsulates the idea quite nicely: http://reep.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/rem024v1
        In essence, the starting point of their argument is that environmental and man-made goods are imperfect substitutes. With environmental goods expected to become “scarcer” due to climate change (e.g. water in the case of prolonged drought), the relative price of these goods must rise next to man-made goods. By incorporating this into our analysis, one can apply higher discount rates (as advocated by the many critics of the Stern Report) and still reach the conclusion that society *should* be a on a strict abatement path.

        Christian Gollier recently put forward a similar – albeit more technical – argument in the JET: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WJ3-4XDD0B5-1&_user=615901&_coverDate=03/31/2010&_rdoc=16&_fmt=high&_orig=browse&_srch=doc-info(%23toc%236867%232010%23998549997%231805744%23FLP%23display%23Volume)&_cdi=6867&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_ct=19&_acct=C000032218&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=615901&md5=e77d823d398c04f5a933be3491161ec3
        (Apologies if the link doesn’t work… You should be able to find it under ‘Ecological Discounting’ if you google his name. He actually goes some way to merging this relative price issue with Weitzman’s uncertainty principal, before arriving at separate discount rates for biodiversity (1.5%) and consumption (3.2%). As I’m sure you’ll recognise, the former is pretty much on par with Stern’s rate of 1.4%…)

        Anyway, I would appreciate your thoughts on this relative price argument. My own believe is that rectifies an obvious shortcoming in the literature (the assumption of perfect substitutability) and, in doing so, provides strong *economic* grounds for thinking seriously about strong abatement action, sooner rather than later.

  5. Jason B says:

    With regards to whether an increase in volumetric concentrations of the trace gas CO2 within the Earth’s atmosphere affects temperature levels it should be noted that the temperature difference would be nearly negligible with a doubling of the CO2 concentration. The gas volume concentrations in an idealized Earth atmosphere are ~0.03% for CO2, ~78% for N2, and ~21% for O2, yet CO2’s thermal conductivity is only half that of nitrogen and oxygen. Doubling the volumetric concentration of CO2 from 0.03% to 0.06% would result in a 0.03% increase in air’s thermal conductiving, although that is within the range of inaccuracies of rounding errors and measuring precisions, yielding a negligible temperature difference.

    The increased concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, which documented in 1958 as ~315 volume parts per million up to ~377 ppmv in March of 2007, does not produce an increased in “thermal forcing effect”, which is the common insinuation construed within the fictitious atmospheric greenhouse effect propagated not only by global warming alarmists, but by practically all the governments.