There’s been much ink spilled lately about the latest work from the authors of Freakonomics. I should say before getting into this that I haven’t read their last book, and don’t plan to read the sequel. I also haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, for largely the same reasons (note that the Freakonomists apparently acknowledge that they cut one section of their latest book because Gladwell scooped them). Basically, I see these sorts of books as attempts by minimally-informed dilettantes to insert themselves into complex topics by applying a canned methodology and pretending that the naive solutions resulting from this are somehow novel and important (I also don’t read Thomas Friedman any more for this reason).

In their latest book, Freakonomists Levitt and Dubner include a chapter on global warming in which they argue that carbon dioxide isn’t the real problem, rising temperatures are, so let’s ignore carbon emissions and monkey with the atmosphere to artificially cool it. Joe Romm has dissected the chapter’s many errors, and the negative reaction of the chapter’s scientific sources to it’s content, and RealClimate demolished the chapter as well. The response from economists has been equally negative.

I lost all possibility of respect for the Freakonomists when I heard an NPR interview where they prefaced a discussion of geoengineering (pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to artificially cool the planet) with a reading from the book’s “explanatory note”:

In truth, the book [Freakonomics] did have a unifying theme, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time, even to us. If pressed, you could boil it down to four words: People respond to incentives. If you wanted to get more expansive, you would say this: People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences. This applies to schoolteachers and Realtors and crack dealers as well as expectant mothers, sumo wrestlers, bagel salesmen, and the Ku Klux Klan.

Emphasis original, from p. xiv of the “Explanatory Note” to Superfreakonomics.

If you take the law of unintended consequences seriously, you do not endorse geoengineering. You just don’t. We have one planet, we’ve studied the upper atmosphere for a matter of decades, and we don’t fully understand how pumping tons of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere will change geochemistry, climate, and other important things. The potential downsides are enormous, the cost significant, the payoff obscure, and it fails to address the full range of problems attendant upon global climate change and massive carbon emissions. For instance, the upward trend in carbon dioxide concentrations will have unpredictable effects on plant growth and ecological communities, it will increase ocean acidity, and it will require that any responses to these phenomena accelerate as unchecked greenhouse gas emissions continue to exert their influence on the global climate and the biosphere.

Responding to the fear of ocean acidification as a result of rising carbon dioxide levels, Jonah Goldberg parrots the Freakonomists by suggesting “Give it some antacid,” as if we could tweak ocean chemistry so simply and with no unpredictable and catastrophic side effects. Kevin Drum ponders Goldberg and the Freakonomists, and suggests that Dubner and Levitt have failed their readers by giving a general impression that is 180 degrees from reality, then insulating themselves from criticism by inserting occasional unconvincing disclaimers (forcing the AP, for instance, to do an elaborate fact-check). He concludes with this thought:

As for Goldberg, he wonders somberly why public belief in global warming has declined lately and decides (natch) that it’s the Democrats’ fault for actually trying to do something about it. The fact that his side of the aisle has waged a blistering, no-holds-barred denialism war for the past few years apparently has nothing to do with it.

It should go without saying that I see parallels to creationism throughout this. The current creationist strategy is not to outright promote creationism (courts having been too cruel to such strategies), and instead advocating for the teaching evolution’s “weaknesses,” itself a strategy mapped out by creationists in the 1980s after losing their last case before the Supreme Court (“school boards and teachers should be strongly encouraged at least to stress the scientific evidences and arguments against evolution in their classes (not just arguments against some proposed evolutionary mechanism, but against evolution per se), even if they don’t wish to recognize these as evidences and arguments for creation (not necessarily as arguments for a particular date of creation, but for creation per se).”) Creationists hope that, even if such arguments do not overtly advocate creationism, students will draw the inference.

Similarly, I see something similar between the mendacious approach Goldberg takes to explaining public opinion about global warming and some criticisms of evolution’s defense by NCSE and others.

To choose an example of this at random, here’s Jerry Coyne criticizing NCSE, the AAAS, and NAS, for being too friendly to religious people:

In 25 years of effort, these organizations don’t seem to have had much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution. I think that this may mean that our nation will have to become a lot less religious before acceptance of evolution increases appreciably.

This sort of argument is quite common from Coyne, PZ, and a range of others in that camp (“New Atheists,” if you will). It argues that public opinion on evolution has been fairly constant for the last 30 years, therefore current approaches to evolution-defense/advocacy have failed, therefore we should do something different, therefore we should stop treating pro-evolution religious people and groups as allies.

While the last part of this argument doesn’t follow in any obvious way from the first parts, one can cobble something or other together. But Kevin Drum’s response to Goldberg points up the fallacy of the first logical leap.

If all else were equal, and if the goal of NCSE, AAAS, NAS, and other groups were primarily to conduct public education about evolution, then the measure of success would clearly be poll results on public acceptance of evolution. But both of these assumptions are false. For the last 50 years, creationists have undertaken a high-profile media campaign against evolution, building on the previous hundred years of anti-evolution agitation (of varying intensity).

By the lights of Coyne, et al., the creationists too have failed, as they aren’t moving the needle against evolution. Indeed, we appear to be in a public opinion stalemate. Static public opinion thus suggests that either creationists are totally ineffective and that pro-evolution forces have been as well, or that creationists are effective on some level and that pro-evolution groups have also been effective, but not much more effective than creationists. The first is wildly implausible, given the wide dispersal of creationist talking points in the general discourse, so we have to conclude that pro-evolution groups have been effective to at least some degree, and the premise of the New Atheist critique of such efforts is left on quicksand.

This isn’t to say that the critique can’t be saved, but it does suggest a naivete or disingenuity among people making such arguments. They either don’t realize the political context of the creation/evolution conflict, or are intentionally obscuring that context to make their point. Neither of those would be entirely satisfactory.

In the interests of moving past vituperation and toward a productive discourse about how to improve this situation, here are some observations about how I think we could be more effective at increasing public understanding of evolution in particular and science in general. First, note that where creationists have been explicitly targeting public opinion, science groups have been approaching the issue from a different angle. NCSE’s resources are largely aimed at activists and teachers, reflecting the fact that most of immediate conflicts over evolution have teachers in the crosshairs, and NCSE’s goal is to be a clearinghouse for information for activists and others on the front line, and the materials are more focused on dispelling creationist myths about evolution than on educating the general public about evolution. The fact that our Constitution offers a legal bulwark against creationism means that strategy is formulated with an eye toward an eventual legal conflict, and to maintaining evolution’s 45 year winning streak. (As always, this blog is not an NCSE project, and while I work at NCSE and have certain vested interests, I’m not saying anything that isn’t clear from NCSE’s website or other public sources, nor am I speaking for NCSE in any sense. I don’t think anything I’m saying now would differ from my opinion on the topic before I worked at NCSE, which may explain why I went to work there.)

NAS and AAAS are in a different situation, but they tend to preach to the choir. Their publications are generally quite technical and aimed at either scientists or at teachers. Even outlets like NOVA, Science News, Science Times, Scientific American, and Seed will tend to have audiences pre-disposed to favor evolution, and the content of such popular science outlets is still too technical for the general public. Audiences who don’t care about evolution or who are undecided about it are less likely to read such material. There has been little effort to break science advocacy out of such a channelized approach, and the suggestion of broader outreach is often met with rather vehement opposition (as evidenced by the reaction to Unscientific America, and the framing fight before that).

In that context, largely defensive in focus and narrowly aimed at a sympathetic audience, the stability of public opinion is hardly surprising. Any strategy focused on primary and secondary education would be hard-pressed to show significant improvements in public understanding, as the cycle of change there is incredibly slow. Today’s teachers may have last been in a year-long biology class in their own high school biology class 50 years ago, when evolution was much less central to the presentation of biology. The average teacher is 42, and may not have taken a biology class since she was 14. Changes we make to secondary education today will have a comparable 30 year lag before they trickle back into most science classes.

And change in science classes is blocked in part by the resistance of parents, who probably also haven’t had a biology class in 25-30 years (age of first pregnancy: 24; age of most ninth graders: 14; average age of ninth-grade parents: over 38). So most teachers didn’t learn biology with evolution at its core. Research shows that teachers who had a college class in evolution spend more time on it, and most spend less than 10 hours of class time on it, a laughably inadequate amount (a third spend less than a week on it, 62% spend 10 hours or less, roughly two weeks of instructional time). Teachers with a college evolution class spend 50% more time on evolution than those without, but how many pre-service programs for biology teachers require a course in evolution?

Part of the problem comes from parents, as well. An informal survey of science educators (mostly high school, but some from colleges and from middle or elementary schools) found that 31% of teachers get pressure (mostly from parents or students) to teach creationism of some form, while 30% report pressure (again, mostly from parents or students) not to teach evolution at all. The survey didn’t ask how many teachers report pressure to teach evolution or not to teach creationism, but my own informal surveys of teachers have turned up no such comparable pressure.

What we need, then, is a broader constituency for science, an effort to reach out to the general public and boost understanding of evolution (or failing that, at least toleration of having it taught to students). Making the schools safe for evolution is a critical first step, but it isn’t enough.

As I pointed out on my Science Denial panel this summer, congresscritters often have advisory panels of constituents on a range of topics. In discussing his own panels, Congressman Joe Sestak (running for one of Pennsylvania’s US Senate seats), listed a range of constituency groups, including military, veterans, manufacturing, unions, and even on dedicated to autism. No mention, though, of science more broadly, either in its narrow academic context nor in the context of the millions of people who read Science Times, Science News, Scientific American, science blogs broadly, or who cheer with House and his colleagues as they apply the scientific method to solving medical mysteries, or Gil Grissom and his successors as they use science to solve crimes.

In recent years, NCSE has been working towards being less reactive, hiring a staffer to reach out to faith communities and another to reach out prospectively to teachers. The first is necessary to counter creationists’ ability to sow doubts about evolution in churches, and to turn that around by encouraging pro-evolution clergy to express their views in pulpits and in public hearings, and to bring scientists in to advance that cause as well. The education project works to help teachers improve and increase their evolution coverage, a critical component of improving the situation. Both positions are less than 5 years old, making it too early to measure the effects of those two hard-working staffers on public opinion polls at large. But it’s a big job, and two people alone can’t do the job, and all of NCSE’s staff is often consumed with the challenge of blocking creationist advances. Naturally, there are lots of things NCSE could do if it had a ton more money and staff, and anyone interested in helping on that front knows what to do.

The question of how pro-evolution forces should proceed is an important and interesting one. Blog debate about it’s shape and content is a crucial part of its future, and I hope this post helps that discussion proceed. I also hope it moves us away from misleading or inaccurate framings of the question.

Comments

  1. #1 Benjamin Nelson
    October 29, 2009

    Josh, I’m sorry, but this post is a dog’s breakfast. Tone it down a bit and spend a bit more time of your attributions and segues.

    Levitt is not “a minimally-informed dilettante”, etc., he is (or was) considered to be a professional economist. And Freakonomics was a truly excellent book, full of novelty, free of naivity, and (at least in parts, arguably) important. Superfreakonomics may be a tragedy, but that doesn’t mean that he is a dope. Far from it.

    By contrast, Jonah Goldberg wrote a book called “Liberal Fascism”. He is a laughingstock amongst two year olds, the Uwe Boll of the pundit world. It offends the eyes and hurts the brain to see his name anywhere near yours, or Coyne’s, or Drum’s, or (if it came to that) Ray Comfort’s.

  2. #2 ShowcaseJase
    October 30, 2009

    “In the interests of moving past vituperation and toward a productive discourse about how to improve this situation, here are some observations about how I think we could be more effective at increasing public understanding of evolution in particular and science in general.”

    One helluva sentence.

  3. #3 Katharine
    October 30, 2009

    Benjamin Nelson, you might want to refer to Deltoid’s latest posts on Mark Levitt if you want to know just how much of a dope Mark Levitt is.

  4. #4 DavidCOG
    October 30, 2009

    > …I see these sorts of books as attempts by minimally-informed dilettantes to insert themselves into complex topics by applying a canned methodology and pretending that the naive solutions resulting from this are somehow novel and important…

    I think I’ve read pretty much everything that the ‘heavy hitters’ have written about the Freaky Boy Car Crash, but that’s the best summation – without reference to the facts – to date. Wonderfully put, Joshua.

  5. #5 anon
    October 30, 2009

    Sounds a lot like another Progressive scientific consensus, Eugenics. Like Eugenics, Global Warming ever so conveniently perfectly fits the political objectives of today’s progressive. It ever so conveniently calls for the takeover of everyday human life by, you guess it, the Progressives!

    And just like Eugenics, Global Warming is enforced by a left wing political consensus that supresses any and all dissent by formalizing Progressive political opinion in “peer review”. =’

    And by peer review, they meant people who accepted Eugenics…

  6. #6 Wendee Holtcamp
    October 30, 2009

    I enjoyed this post very much Josh. I did like Freakonomics, a lot but haven’t read his later works or heard about his stuff about global warming (leave that to the scientists – ack). In light of your statements “Audiences who don’t care about evolution or who are undecided about it are less likely to read such material. There has been little effort to break science advocacy out of such a channelized approach”… that is the intended goal of my book, which I’m just finishing up! I’ve really tried to appeal to an audience not necessarily already inclined to reading all the current books and info on the creation-evolution controversy out there. But, it’s a crapshoot. Wish me luck!

  7. #7 Benjamin Nelson
    October 30, 2009

    Katherine, I’ve seen the posts. Steven Levitt may have co-authored a silly sequel, and it may have damaged his reputation. But let’s get it straight: he is a professional economist at the University of Chicago who wrote an excellent, professional, interesting, well-researched and fun book (Freakonomics). That is why the sequel (Superfreakonomics) is so outrageous and disappointing, at least going by reviews.

  8. #8 Jim Thomerson
    October 30, 2009

    I taught a university junior-level evolution course a number of times. Because this course is required of our biology secondary education majors, I included a couple of lectures on creationism (I retired before ID became an issue). No question it is important for biology teachers to be able to deal with evolution and creationist criticisms and pressures in an informed and successful manner.

    Most universities have a general education component to degree plans; thus many students take a general education biology course. Effectively teaching in these courses is extremely important. My goal was that students leave the class thinking biology is both important and interesting.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    October 30, 2009

    … the suggestion of broader outreach is often met with rather vehement opposition …

    Yeah, that’s why smoke comes out of Richard Dawkins’s ears when David Attenborough’s name is mentioned, and PZ Myers sends his minions to attack National Geographic‘s site when they sponsor a documentary on the Galapagos, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation sues the Surgeon General for every attempt at public education about antibiotic resistance.

    Evolution must be kept for the private pleasure of the elite!

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    October 30, 2009

    Benjamin Nelson: I called him and Dubner “minimally-informed dilettantes” because, regardless of economic credentials of one author, they are not well-informed about climate change, a topic they decided to write a chapter of their book about. Nor, to my knowledge, is either author an expert on prostitution, abortion, suicide bombers, the discover of the germ theory, child naming, etc. This works out fine for the most part, but only because they talked to real experts and respected those experts’ knowledge. In the case of global warming, they had too few experts, and misrepresented those experts’ views. “Ill-informed” seems pretty fair in that light.

    As to “dilettante”: University of Chicago economists have a certain reputation for being the proverbial man with a hammer. In this case, Levitt and Dubner jump from topic to topic, applying the magic of economic rationalism to everything they can find, without engaging the genuine underlying complexities. On global warming, they utterly screwed the pooch, but I don’t know that they did so much better on any other topic. As Ezra Klein notes: “The problem with Superfreakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one.”

    Heck, even Levitt agrees that he’s not an expert: “I mean, I just — I just don’t know very much about the field of economics. I’m not good at math, I don’t know a lot of econometrics, and I also don’t know how to do theory. If you ask me about whether the stock market’s going to go up or down, if you ask me whether the economy’s going to grow or shrink, if you ask me whether deflation’s good or bad, if you ask me about taxes — I mean, it would be total fakery if I said I knew anything about any of those things.”

    At the time (2 years before Freakonomics), Levitt insisted “I gave up a long time ago pretending that I knew stuff I didn’t know.” Would that he stuck to that commitment.

  11. #11 Benjamin Nelson
    October 30, 2009

    Josh, I find it hard to respond to you exactly except to point to the internal inconsistency of your first paragraph.

    Self-deprecation aside, Levitt’s economic credentials were achieved through merit, not won through luck or lottery. The 2003 article by Dubner that you linked to lays it out. He achieved tenure in 2 years; was editor of The Journal of Political Economy; he won the John Bates Clark Medal. That’s not nothing. Perhaps you have some other idea of how to measure proficiency in a field besides wide acclaim by your peers; I would very much enjoy knowing what that might be.

    Calling him a “minimally informed dilettente” is entirely inappropriate when in his Freakonomics papers he was able to imagine creative applications of economic methods to achieve interesting and novel results. In the papers that would eventually get published in Freakonomics, he reached his conclusions about such disparate social topics as abortion and prostitution by defending his arguments in scientific journals against critical scrutiny from his peers. That, also, is not nothing. If we couple that with the fact that you brag about neither having read this earlier work nor intend to, it suggests to me that your claim that he is not an expert on “abortion”, etc. doesn’t achieve any result except to trivialize outstanding and talented research, especially in a field that is in severe need of empiricists.

    Evidently, the sequel is putrid, pathetic, counterproductive, careless, and embarressing. That’s unfortunate, and he’ll pay the price through a hit to his reputation. But the emphasis here is that he once had a reputation, and it was a good one. That is what makes this whole affair the tragedy that it is.

  12. #12 Moderately Unbalanced Squid
    November 1, 2009

    Benjamin, proof is in the pudding. Regardless of his qualifications in economics, Levitt *earned* the title “minimally informed dilettante” by screwing up the chapter on global warming in an intensely embarrassing fashion – see stoat http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2009/10/superfreakonomics_global_cooli.php for the details – he should have been able to do what any undergraduate in statistics does, and recognize whether a trend is upwards or downwards on the relevant timescale.

    Clark Medal or not, he’s expressed opinions in writing contrary to the evidence and deserves to be reviled for that. The Clark Medal does not confer a savings throw or bonus in this instance.

  13. #13 Peter Beattie
    November 2, 2009

    [The Non-po-faced-Atheists argue] that public opinion on evolution has been fairly constant for the last 30 years, therefore current approaches to evolution-defense/advocacy have failed, therefore we should do something different, therefore we should stop treating pro-evolution religious people and groups as allies. While the last part of this argument doesn’t follow in any obvious way from the first parts

    And you have the temerity to talk about “mendacious approach[es]” in others? You should be ashamed of yourself, Josh, for of course “the last part of this argument doesn’t follow” because you, without a hint of shame and with reckless disregard for the truth, simply made it up.

    And this has been pointed out to you several times, e.g. by Jason Rosenhouse in the comments to your post of the other day. Dawkins et al. don’t need your pompous lecturing on allying themselves with religious groups on the evolution issue. They all do that. Their critique of NCSE has nothing to do with that point, as anyone interested in a fair debate has long ago noticed.

    Their critique is certainly not about collaborating with religious groups, as you baselessly assert, but about your one-sided endorsement of certain claims about how evolution poses no threat whatsoever to religious ideas. That claim is empirically false and your stance needlessly alienates the majority of defenders of evolution (your allies, remember?) who very clearly see that it can very well be a threat to most real-world religious ideas. And all they’re asking is for you to be neutral on that particular question. They are not asking you not to collaborate with religious folk, and they’re not asking that any atheist perspective be included in your work. What they’re asking is that you heed your own mission statement, which includes neutrality on religious issues.

  14. #14 mk
    November 2, 2009

    I’m not sure if it’s ignorance or stupidity or mendacity, but your horrible mischaracterization of PZ, Coyne, Dawkins et al is grossly off the mark. They do not think “we” should stop treating religious people who understand evolution as allies.

    Deep down I think you actually do know this to be true and you simply could resist taking another gratuitous (and ridiculous!) swipe at them.

    Shame on you.

  15. #15 josh
    November 2, 2009

    Wait wait wait. You bring in a Jonah Goldberg comparison, (of which I approve since I think he deserves the ignominy of an eventual Godwin style prohibition, e.g., “Well, you just Rosenaued that discussion.”), but this is somehow against the non-accommodationists? If we accept that evolution denialism and global warming denialism are analogous, then Goldberg is in the position of blaming the most active critics of denialism for the rampant denialism of his side, i.e. rightwing fundamentalists. Clearly Goldberg is in the accommodationist camp.

  16. #16 articulett
    November 2, 2009

    Josh, you silly boy! Does it ever occur to you that the people who have the biggest problem grasping basic science are all people who believe in “other ways of knowing” (–the number one claim of religion! –Step right up and win salvation through faith!)

    Moreover, the shysters selling religion and the faitheists that cover for them are busy putting down the honest folks who’d gladly share actual evidence regarding truly profound understanding of concepts that we humans are privileged to finally understand. It’s religionists and folks like you who are to blame for unscientific America! You ennoble faith as if believing an unbelievable story was worthy of some special respect.

    Here’s how you sound to me: “Shame shame on Dawkins, Coyne, and PZ for saying the emperor is naked… why, he could very well be wearing mystical magical robes that only special people can see! How vulgar to take away the magical feeling people get when they believe they’ve caught a glimpse of his robe! Why can’t they be nice like me? If only those arrogant new atheists were nicer to the believers-in-magical-robes, then we could slip the believers some “real science” on the sly when we bent to kiss their asses…”

    If you don’t like my paraphrasing of your words, consider how grossly you’ve mischaracterized Coyne et. al.

    I think you are jealous of their success and the evidence which shows that the “new atheists” are spreading scientific understanding in a way that you could never hope to. They are reaching the masses even as you try desperately to drag them into the mud so that you can elevate yourself.

    The NCSE ought to stay out of the religion business. That’s all that has been said. No one said anything about alienating religious allies–that is your straw man, Josh. We don’t discuss how science and astrology can mesh… we don’t discuss how demon belief can fit into science– so why the hell would a science organization get involved with any supernatural claim? Is it too much to ask that they treat all supernatural claims equally? I tell my students that they should get their science from scientists. (They can get their religion from their indoctrinators.) I don’t want my science mixed with superstition. And I support the NCSE while agreeing with those “new atheists” who think they shouldn’t be mixing religion with science. There’s no need. And where do you draw the line anyhow? Who decides. Is Eugenie going to start telling people how “The Secret” can be compatible with science next. Are we going to be reading articles about “why Capricorns should study astrology?” I think it’s fine to say “lots of believers have no problems accepting evolution”, and then drop it.

    Josh, I think youve vastly overestimated your expertise on this subject and vastly underestimate how many people the “new atheists” reach with their far more honest approach.

    Religionists need to keep their beliefs as private as they want the Scientologists to be, and you need not defend any religion more than you’d defend Scientology. Promoting “other ways of knowing” makes for very poor critical thinkers.

    You backed the wrong horse in this debate, and stamping your feet won’t make the truth go away. Here’s a clue:– you’re on the side of Kwok, McCarthy, Ruse, and that ilk.

  17. #17 articulett
    November 2, 2009

    People can and do write great first books, followed by awful second books. For example: Mooney.

  18. #18 SLC
    November 3, 2009

    Re articulett

    Actually, Mr. Mooneys’ second book, “Storm World,” was equally as good as his first book, “The Rethuglican War on Science.” The collaboration with Ms. Kirshenbaum is his third book. Hopefully, in his next endeavor, he will return to the themes of his first two books.

  19. #19 articulett
    November 3, 2009

    Thanks for the correction, SLC.

    I don’t see why the believers need the faitheists to defend them. Isn’t their deity able to defend himself as well as his acolytes.

    I want to live in a world where relgionists are as private as they want those with conflicting supernatural claims to be. I think that’s fair. I don’t think anyone should feel ennobled by what they “believe in”! It’s a recipe for arrogant-ignorance dressed up in the garb of humble-truth.

    I agree with Hitchens that it’s time to outgrow this primitive way of thought.

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