Anatomy of a credibility war–global warming and Superfreakonomics

Here’s a blog war that seems to be heating up faster than our climate: The New York Times guest editorial column by Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner takes on a very strident attack by a prominent environmental blogger.

From a reputation management standpoint, this kind of interchange is fascinating. Here are a few of my observations:

1) Your viewpoint on this–whether you agree with blogger Joe Romm or Dubner depends mostly on your own biases and perceptions. We never really start on neutral ground. I happen to be a big fan of Freakonomics and admired their courage to bring up issues such as abortion and falling crime rates in the face of the political correctness police. So that is my bias and I approach this war from that standpoint.

2) It’s all about credibility. If you take the time to dissect Dubner’s response to Romm’s attack you can see it goes directly to the heart of whether or not Romm can be trusted and believed. This is where such reputation wars always end up in my mind which means the first caution to any communicator is never ever ever give your opponents any reason to question your complete honesty–including what you don’t say.

3) Borrowed credibility–here the debate is largely over what position one of the subjects in the book–Ken Caldeira who according to both seems to be one of the most respected climate scientists in the world. Both are making claims about what he says and doesn’t say about the reporting. From that standpoint, it seems to be that Dubner delivered a knockout punch to Romm when he demonstrated that Caldeira’s denial of a statement in the book was from Caldeira’s failure to carefully edit it and not due to the author’s lack of integrity as Romm is trying to prove.

4) Tone matters–Romm can’t help himself in his outrage. There are certainly times when outrage is appropriate and should be used. But Dubner’s even tone and very careful dissection of the argument vs. Romm’s more emotional ranting communicates that Romm is just deeply disturbed by what the book is saying and Dubner is understanding this is about who is to be believed more than who is most passionate. Romm does his argument a disservice in my mind by his tone. Lending a lot of credence to the statement in the book about the religion of global warming.

4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a credibility war–global warming and Superfreakonomics”

  1. Actually, facts matter.

    You might check out this independent article by an award-winning journalist. I got my facts right, Dubner did not.
    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601039&sid=aVKXZg_Z.vMY

    As Bloomberg reports: “Carbon dioxide is the right villain,” Caldeira wrote on his Web site in reply. He told Joe Romm, the respected climate blogger who broke the story, that he had objected to the “wrong villain” line but Dubner and Levitt didn’t correct it; instead, they added the “incredibly foolish” quote, a half step in the right direction. Caldeira gave the same account to me.

    Bloomberg continues: Levitt and Dubner do say that the book “overstates” Caldeira’s position. That’s a weasel word: The book claims the opposite of what Caldeira believes. Caldeira told me the book contains “many errors” in addition to the “major error” of misstating his scientific opinion on carbon dioxide’s role….

    Read the whole Bloomberg piece. Dubner STILL doesn’t understand the bigger misrepresentation of Caldeira’s work.

    Bloomberg: Caldeira, who is researching the idea [of aerosol geoengineering], argues that it can succeed only if we first reduce emissions. Otherwise, he says, geoengineering can’t begin to cope with the collateral damage, such as acidic oceans killing off shellfish.

    Levitt and Dubner ignore his view and champion his work as a permanent substitute for emissions cuts. When I told Dubner that Caldeira doesn’t believe geoengineering can work without cutting emissions, he was baffled. “I don’t understand how that could be,” he said. In other words, the Freakonomics guys just flunked climate science.

    OUCH!!

    I was outraged because I had just interviewed Caldeira and knew the book had misrepresented his core belief.

    BTW, Dubner has already retracted one of his false accusations against me.

  2. You’re ignoring the abundant evidence as to how either sloppy or disingenuous Dubner has been on this subject. For starters, the claim that global cooling was a common belief among scientists in the 1970s. That’s debunked here:

    http://ams.allenpress.com/perlserv/?request=get-abstract&doi=10.1175/2008BAMS2370.1&ct=1

    Caldeira himself has more to say here:

    e360: Overall, do you feel like your work has been accurately and fairly represented in this book?

    Caldeira: The main misrepresentation is the quote that says that CO2 is not “the right villain.” Now, again, I don’t use “villain” talk myself, but if you say what’s the primary gas responsible for the planetary warming, I would say it’s carbon dioxide.

    Now, there’s a tougher question when it comes to the other statements that are attributed to me. All of those other statements are based in fact and based on studies that either I have published or other scientists have published. And if we pull back to the case of the biosphere taking up 70 percent of CO2 — well, yes, we have a published study that said that. It also presented results saying that we might warm up the planet enough to risk melting Antarctica ultimately. And so there is a selective use of quotes.

    If you spend several hours talking to somebody and they take a half-dozen things and put it in a book, then it’s going to be in the context and framing of arguments that the authors are trying to make. And so the actual statements attributed to me are based on fact, but the contexts and the framing of those issues are very different from the context and framing that I would put those same facts in…

    So I think that the casual reader can… come up with a misimpression of what I believe and what I feel about things.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/oct/22/geo-engineering-ken-caldeira

    This is a polite way of saying the authors misrepresent his views.

    You write about credibility. What credibility do an economist and a journalist, who use inflammatory rhetoric on the subject in their title, have on the subject of climate science? Here’s the consensus view among people with real expertise in the relevant discipline:

    http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2009/media/1021climate_letter.pdf

  3. You might take a look at: http://www.matternetwork.com/2009/10/geoengineering-planet-possibilities-pitfalls.cfm

    Caldeira sounds *much* more like Romm’s Caldeira than he sounds like Dubner’s Caldeira.

    As Caldeira says: “The main misrepresentation is the quote that says that CO2 is not “the right villain”… but if you say what’s the primary gas responsible for the planetary warming, I would say it’s carbon dioxide…. [T]he other statements that are attributed to me… based in fact and based on studies…. [P]ull back to the case of the biosphere taking up 70 percent of CO2–well, yes, we have a published study that said that. It also presented results saying that we might warm up the planet enough to risk melting Antarctica…. [T]here is a selective use of quotes. If you spend several hours talking to somebody and they take a half-dozen things and put it in a book, then it’s going to be in the context and framing of arguments that the authors are trying to make… the contexts and the framing of those issues are very different from the context and framing that I would put those same facts in… So I think that the casual reader can… come up with a misimpression of what I believe and what I feel about things…”

  4. An excellent article on this issue, and I totally understand the point about comming to this feeling more biased to the Freakonomics guys so I am not going to be neutral here!

    I can’t believe that grownups living in our 21st century communication age are using phrases like

    “Caldeira sounds *much* more like Romm’s Caldeira than he sounds like Dubner’s Caldeira.”

    I don’t know if Messer’s Romm and DeLong often comment here, but after having followed this debate on the blogs and finding this page, (after searching blogs for “romm dubner”) I was curious to find that that Romm and DeLong commented here.

    I would like to ask these gentlemen shouldn’t the simple fact that Caldeira has said about his collaboration with Levitt and Dubner
    “…I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.”

    Be enough?

    Admittedly that is from Dubner’s side. That is to say, it is claimed to be a quote of Caldeira’s that Dubner has used. If that is wrong then I would hope that Caldeira would be able to directly point it out himself. Or has Caldeira’s point of view been hijacked and manipulated here by Dubner?

    Or is it the other way round?

    I ask this because Caldeira is quoted by Dubner as saying

    “I was drawn in by Romm and Al Gore’s assistant into critiquing other parts of the chapter. Rather than acting deliberately, I panicked and commented on things that I now wish I would have been silent on. It was obviously a mistake to let myself get drawn into this, and I learned a quick and hard lesson in public relations.”

    BTW If anyone is interested in how Mr Caleriera *sounds* then try the original with the audio.

    http://www.e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2201

    I wont say OUCH!! here because that would be silly using that to emphasise something I’ve just written myself.

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