Questioning conventional wisdom

In case you thought that the the Krugman/Freakonomics Global Warming Feud was over, Paul Krugman launched this salvo in his blog today. As a reminder, the basic issue is that Dubner and Leavitt (aka the freakonomics guys) have a chapter in their new book Superfreakonomics, in which they discuss global warming. In their discussion, they apparently give a fair amount of discussion to the minority opinion in the 1970’s which thought that there might be global cooling.

From Krugman:

Let’s talk about the “brief mention” of global cooling that Dubner feels has been misread. Um, that was a page and a half — and it was the first page and half of the chapter. Why shouldn’t readers conclude that it was supposed to be an important story?

And there’s context. The “scientists used to predict global cooling” is a favorite argument of climate change deniers — see any number of George Will columns. If you put that story at the front of your chapter on climate, anyone, and I mean anyone, who has been following the debate will conclude that you are endorsing that position.

His main point is that they are being contrarian just to be contrarian, and it’s taking every fiber of my being not to agree with him about this particular case. As amazon hasn’t yet delivered my copy, I should at very least withhold judgment.

On the broader issue, however, I have to agree with Krugman. There is definitely a marked trend in a lot of popular economics (and even popular science) literature aimed at assailing the popular wisdom for its own sake. There’s an idea that if you’re questioning received authority then you are necessarily adding something to the conversation. I think this has a trickle down effect as well. Rather than recognizing that so much of what we know about how things work have a very solid foundation, ideas like Dark Matter are derided as something that physicists come up with out of sheer laziness.

Or to give a concrete example, I recall one of the threads responding to my slate piece in which a reader dismissively wanted to know what would happen if Einstein was just wrong. And as a scientist, I always have to accept that possibility. There was some discussion here and elsewhere, for example, about a recent article by Rachel Bean in which she tested general relativity (aka Einstein’s big theory) against some recent observational weak lensing data. At around the 2 1/2 sigma level (significant enough to publish, but not significant enough to burn your textbooks) her results suggested that GR should be rejected. Now, there are reasons to be skeptical of this result — more recent observations give a somewhat different result, for example — but in this case there is support for questioning the existing paradigm.

I suppose I’m feeling curmudgeony because while “Man bites dog” or “Einstein was wrong” makes good headlines in the interwebs, more often than not, very good science suggests that Einstein was right or dog bites man, and there’s something that we can learn from those cases, too.

Edit: 10/24/09

Steven Leavitt responds to Krugman and others, but to my mind, clearly misses the point. Krugman isn’t really questioning Leavitt and Dubner’s beliefs (though perhaps he has his doubts), he’s criticizing them for trying to be controversial by conflating the beliefs of a few scientists in the 1970’s and the overwhelming scientific consensus today. L&D are putting forth the same talking points as global warming deniers, and so even if they believe the scientific view of global warming (which I genuinely believe) they give it’s detractors greater credence.


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