The Freakonomics boys are wrong about humanity

October 28, 2009 at 10:47 am 2 comments

by Alec Patton

So, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have written a sequel to Freakonomics, which they’ve called Superfreakonomics, and they’re getting a lot of press for being ‘contrarian’ on climate change (you can read the relevant chapter here).

Nobel laureate and economics hero Paul Krugman has written two good columns on this – one about why the ‘let’s be counterintuitive’ parlour game that is’freakonomics is not fit to purpose for tackling something as important as climate change (read it here), and another about how Levitt and Dubner grossly misrepresent the brief flurry over ‘global cooling’ of the 1970s (which gives the chapter its whizz-bang opening -and allows the authors to imply climate-change denial without actually committing it), and how they misrepresent the work of Martin Weitzman (read it here).

The Superfreakonomics case is that we can’t, at this point, prevent the planet from warming up a lot (which is true) and that nobody’s going to change their behaviour just to make sure their children don’t grow up in Waterworld (I’ll come back to this). So they recommend firing immense quantities of chemicals into the atmosphere (artificially re-creating the effect of a major volcanic eruption) once a year for the next millenium or so.  Miss a year, and the planet will heat up faster than a refrigerator with its door open during a power cut in July. As the Deltoid blog puts it, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’

For the scientific problems with Levitt and Dubner’s rocket-full-of-artificial-ash solution, see the ever-useful Realclimate blog. I’m interested in the question of human behaviour. In a recent radio interview, Levitt claimed (regarding climate change) that ‘No problem has ever been solved by changing human behaviour.’*

When I read this, my first instinct was to agree with him. It seemed to cut to the heart of the problem with climate change – changing behaviour on a mass scale is a sucker’s game, people aren’t going to choose to live in an austere way, and they won’t vote for anyone who will legislate austerity. Except, of course, for Britain in World War II – a notable example of a problem being solved (in part) by ‘changing human behaviour’.

Since then, human behaviour has changed radically in a short time: the way people behave today would astonish anyone from 50 years ago: the  amount of meat that we consume (50% higher per capita than what they ate), for example, or the fact that we expect to have central heating.

People would also be surprised that we thought it was abhorrent to refuse to hire people based on their race or sex. So what on earth did white people have to gain by legislating against racial discrimination? Not much, on an individual level. A 1940s or ’50s Levitt and Dubner might have asked why any of these racial equality proselytisers thought any group would let go of an immensely privileged position just because a few people told them  it was the ‘right’ thing to do. ‘No problem,’ they might have remarked drily, ‘has ever been solved by changing human behaviour.’

It just ain’t so. In fact, no big problems get solved WITHOUT a large number of humans changing their behaviour.


*full disclosure: I got this quote from the Realclimate blog, who mention that the wording of this quote may not be exact.


Entry filed under: Innovation Policy, Local Innovation.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tom  |  October 28, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Absolutely spot on! Culture is primary. The great lie of the behavioural sciences is that behaviour is hard to change. It is – by policy, conscious decision or ten minute questionnaire interventions – but the range of life-worlds across the world and through time suggest that human behaviour is highly flexible.

  • 2. Jo  |  October 31, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    This won’t come as a shock from a lefty like me but the solution is government. You need to legislate to encourage changes in behaviour. Incrementally, actions that seemed commonplace gradually become outrageous. Half a dozen years of wartime thrift didn’t just creak Britain through global conflict it became absolutely pervasive amongst two generations of Britains. It took decades to kill it off.

    We’ve still got our old Ministry of Information boys to explain to people why we need to do what needs to be done. Start the presses!


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