Bashing environmentalists always pays

I generally don’t indulge in blog rants, mostly because I’m just not very good at them. David Roberts, on the other hand, is good at them, and he puts to words some of the deep disgust I’ve been feeling over the foofaraw kicked up by the new book *Superfreakonomics*, the sequel to the fairly awful and inexplicably bestselling *Freakonomics*.

I’m not going to rehash the *Superfreakonomics* episode in detail. For the gory details, go here or here and follow the thread. Better yet, check out the rigorous and entertainingly smug scientific takedown at Realclimate. In very brief: the book’s authors spend a few pages flirting with — but not explicitly endorsing! — various crusty old climate change denial talking points, and then glibly announce that we should forget about fossil fuels and just pump a few million tons of tons of sulfur into the sky to cool the planet. Cue Roberts:

> Mainstream media outlets seek one thing above all else, and that’s the unexpected, the contrarian. When it comes to climate change, that generally means taking a poke at greens (or better yet, at Al Gore). It’s even better if you’re a purported green bashing other greens. That’s the kind of media crack Nordhaus & Shellenberger dealt on their way to fame and funding. Bash the greens, no matter your qualifications or the merits of your arguments, and you will find yourself on television and in opinion sections from the *New York Times* to *Washington Post* to *Wired*.

> Helpfully, when you offer facile dismissals of science and policy to which people have devoted their lives—“We could end this debate and be done with it,” sighs Dubner, “and move on to problems that are harder to solve.”—they get angry, and they express that anger. Then you get to be the Brave, Persecuted Freethinker battling the Quasi-Religious Orthodoxy, and the press loves you all the more.

What’s amazing is how *unfailingly successful this strategy is.* It’s like the lottery ticket that always pays. I don’t really care that the Superfreakonomists have endorsed geoengineering. There’s a fine discussion to be had, blah blah blah. No, my disgust stems from how readily the authors have assumed the mantle of aggrieved victimhood, and how eagerly this narrative is taken up by the peanut gallery. No one ever goes broke beating up on the environment.

> On the other hand, simply repeat the broad global consensus— climate change is an urgent problem that warrants coordinated action to reduce GHG emissions—and you get nowhere. Boooring. (I can’t tell you how many back-and-forths I’ve had with media outlets where I try to explain that the thing most people think is right actually is right, and they say, maybe so, but that’s not going to titillate our readers.)

What’s the correct response here? I really don’t know. Certainly in the case of Superfreakonomics, bored disregard would have starved the episode of the media oxygen it needs to survive. Realclimate’s attempt to embarrass one of the co-authors by calling into question his academic credibility seems like a promising avenue. I’m not sure either strategy works in the general case, though.

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  1. Tracy Ball - November 1, 2009

    Our species is pleasure seeking and pain avoiding. Solving this problem involves immersing ourselves in perceived self-sacrifice for generations. The strategy of “denialism” is successful because it obviates that need. You can have your cake and eat it too right? As a species, on average, we are just too weak to adapt unless imminently and viscerally threatened. Understanding that leads to a correctly heightened sense of the urgency. We simply don’t possess the collective intellect to grasp this properly. If you believe that as I do then the only logical strategy is all of those you mentioned and organized direct civil disobedience on a massive scale. The first Earth Day demonstrators that organized in support of the Clean Air Act numbered in the tens of millions. This is the scale of the civil action required to effect change. After that, the media and the politicians will simply have no more room to manipulate and maneuver.

  2. Ann - November 4, 2009

    Well said, Tracy!

  3. Wally - November 4, 2009

    With all the anti-sciencism rampant in the country, I was thinking of writing letters to as many periodicals as I could identify saying that the scientists who are promoting the investment of scarce resources to combat human-driven global warming have consciences and children. They have no motive for leading us in the wrong direction from the brink we have come to.
    And then the Superfreakonomics folks come along with what, in my opinion, appear to be untested, unexamined, and as one reviewer pointed out, potentially destructive.
    I’m sure the authors are well-intended, but they exemplify, again in my opinion, the principles of human behavior outlined by Mr. Stein which may well be our downfall.

  4. Michael - November 4, 2009

    Science is NOT on the side of the greens! The anti-climate change crowd is a religion with no science. The climate will change no matter what you do. Get over it.
    You don’t use the scientific method which is to look at all available data whether it supports your premise or not and come up with a provable, repeatable conclusion. What you people use is more of a courtroom legal argument. You have a premise and only accept evidence that supports your predetermined conclusion.
    WE ARE ON TO YOU. Try something else.

  5. darooda - November 5, 2009

    Isn’t this true for almost all issues? It’s really a condemnation of the education level of the populace that they allow themselves to be duped by faux-experts looking for fame or a quick buck. You can see it in healthcare reform, trust the politicians all the people in the system are greedy and on the take, really what is more likely, the politicians being motivated by greed and fame or your local doctor? How about this imunization scare? Trust the books written by people from no name med schools that lack board certification, because clearly your local pediatrician and the whole of medical research is secretly out to get you. Or defense policy, or nuclear power, etc. The media puts up people that sell fear and give the equal platform with those that base their decisions on the best information availible and actually live with the results. The public eats it up!

  6. Tom Harrison - November 5, 2009

    I agree with Adam’s post (I read the whole thing, and the cat fight image is about right).
    But I wanted to observe, in a touch of irony, that economics has a pretty good model for describing why people are acting as tracy, wally and darooda have observed in comments.
    “Game Theory” shows why we make decisions that are not optimal — a classic example is the Prisoner’s Dilemma (wikipedia link). Bottom line is that we act selfishly.
    In any case, whether it be civil disobedience, letters to the editor, chances are the solution will come via the default: just waiting for something really bad to happen to enough people with the power to make change happen finally.
    Having said that, I am not giving up on any efforts I can make personally, or in groups, or at companies, or in politics to help people understand and internalize the urgency and severity of this problem, whether Dubner et. al have something to say, or not.
    And of course, I much prefer bashing economists (which I think I can, having studied Econ at the university where much of game theory was invented) to bashing greens.