Superfreakonomics is out. Well, one chapter of it is out because it sort of escaped. Levitt and Dubner have turned their professional contrarianism on climate change and — it seems — they were not so careful as they might have been with some of their facts and interpretations. Holy hell has broken loose in the blogosphere. People are not happy. Dubner has now responded to some of it. I can’t say I’m very convinced by what he has to say. I’ve read the chapter, and it seems to me that I’ve noticed a problem beyond the zillions that have already been identified. You see, Levitt and Dubner close with what has been described as a “silly analogy” but when you really look at it, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t that it’s silly. It’s that they don’t understand the implications of their own analogy. And they don’t understand them, I think, because they ignore basic sociology.
For those of you who have not read the chapter, I suppose I should say what that analogy is. Levitt and Dubner tell the story of Semmelweis’s difficulty in convincing doctors that they should wash their hands. Semmelweis figured out in 1847 that if doctors washed their hands, they could save a lot of lives. They note that even recent studies have shown that doctors still do not wash their hands nearly so often as they should, even though they know that is very bad. Then, they tell the story about how Cedars-Sinai responded to a 1999 study showing that doctors just didn’t change their behavior. They had a hard time. They tried all sorts of things. In the end though, they managed to do it by culturing the hands of many of the top doctors in the hospital while they were at a lunch meeting, showing them how filthy their hands really were, and putting the cultures up as screensavers in the whole hospital to remind people all the time. It’s a nice story. It was hard, but in the end, they were able to get handwashing rates up to nearly 100 percent.
What lesson do Levitt and Dubner draw from that analogy? They argue that the reason it was so hard to get doctors to wash their hands, even though they knew it was important, was because of externalities. The doctors were getting other people sick, but their own lives weren’t in danger so it didn’t seem that important. That seems plausible. But then things get weird. They argue that the analogy supports their argument that we need to think seriously about geo-engineering — rather than trying to control CO2 — because we’ll never be able to get people to change their behavior. We just don’t pay a high enough individual price for our own bad deeds. Homo Economicus!
It’s here that I start to ask myself whether they read the words they write, or like memento-on-speed, they forget even their immediately previous paragraphs. Are they trying to be contrarian even to themselves? I mean, they are talking about something where the science is clear, it’s important, and at the end, Cedars-Sinai does manage to get people to do what they are supposed to do without changing their incentives. And the lesson they draw for the climate change debate is that we need geo-engineering?!?!?! Where does that come from? I look at the exact same analogy, and say we’ve got something where even they now say the science seems pretty clear — CO2 causes climate change — so we need to work really hard to get people to change their behavior, and, while difficult, it is possible. We just have to go to great lengths to make people really understand that it is really bad, and we cannot relent on the social pressure.
So what does the analogy suggest we should be doing, besides improving our own behavior? Well, for starters, when people suggest that we’ll just figure out a simple technological fix that will surely work forever, we make it very clear that they are treading in dangerous territory, and we especially do not let them get away with any untruths. The burden of proof is on those who advocate the unknown, not those who advocate trying to maintain or return to the known. Their own analogy suggests that people should be tearing into them in order to maintain awareness that carbon dioxide is the right villain, insofar as inanimate objects can be villains. It is important to maintain that social norm, to chastise those who might even unwittingly dismiss it. This doesn’t mean stop thinking. We can still be fallibilists. We can certainly explore geo-engineering, but we cannot make the case for it by pooh-poohing the very possibility of behavioral change. People are social animals. It’s just not true that we never solve collective action problems. Did Levitt and Dubner never hear of Elinor Ostrom? I think she might have recently gotten some sort of prize.
We can even turn back to their own analogy to make a case against geo-engineering. Why should we care if doctors wash their hands? We’ve invented penicillin. And that’ll surely work forever, right?