Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book Review: SuperFreakonomics

So, I recently finished reading Levitt and Dubner's second installment of Freakonomics, titled SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.  The book is definitely an entertaining and thought-provoking read, if, like all sequels, a little lighter on substance than the original.  Still, I always have to applaud these efforts to involve the non-researching public in a more analytical (methods based) approach to looking at things.  This book, like the last one, trots out many of the ideas that scientists (and economists) value when trying to figure things out, like "correlation is not cause" and "the data are the data" (i.e. your subjective assumptions or intuitions can be, and often are wrong, but, the data are the data), and since I am always for promoting a more analytical (and scientific) way of thinking about things, I have to say that, like the first Freakonomics volume, I would highly recommend this book.  And since any regular readers here are likely to be curious (since I write an awful lot about Global Warming for a neurobiologist) the book does not make any claims that global warming is false, they simply bring up the fact that there was a little bit of a stir back in the 1970s that we were heading for another ice age (despite the fact that we were, and are, still in one) since global temperatures cooled a bit between the 1940s and 1970s.  They use this example to suggest that we should be cautious in our interpretations of the current data that shows continued warming over the past hundred years or so (despite the decline in the 50s and 60s).  Caution in interpreting data is a fabulous idea, and one I couldn't live without as a scientist, and if you look back at all of my posts, you will never see me suggest that the Eastern seaboard will be under water in the next 30 years, or that global temperature will definitely increase by 6 degrees in the next hundred years, or that the world is going to end if we don't stop producing so much carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases).  I only claim that we need to acknowledge the FACTS that (1) the earth has warmed over the past 100 years or so, and (2) a reasonable amount of this warming is attributable to human activity.  What extent of an effect he have had or can have (in terms of further warming, or perhaps cooling in the sense of geo-engineering) are more open to debate, and trying to completely cut carbon and other emissions could severely damage growing economies and kill many more people in the immediate future than we are trying to save by "saving the planet".  These are all good reasons as to why we should be cautious in our interpretations and in our decisions about what to do in the present and in the future, BUT, to ignore the cold hard facts of the case (the globe is warming, human emissions contribute to that warming) would simply be irresponsible, and would not allow us to make informed decisions about the future of this planet and its inhabitants.
See, I told you it was a thought provoking book.

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