Superfreaking Out


Just days before the release of the new book by the authors of Freakonomics (not-so-imaginatively titled Superfreakonomics), a controversy sprung up about whether or not the book gets the science on global warming very, very wrong. As folks know, the Freakonomics team of Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt found their original zing by taking a contrarian approach to persistent economic puzzles; but a rising chorus of critics — including their New York Times colleague Paul Krugman — are charging that, this time, the pair are way out of their depth.

The hubub began with a takedown by blogger Joe Fromm on the popular environmental website Grist. Dubner and Levitt took it seriously enough to write a point-by-point rebuttal on their Times blog, calling it a “smear.” Things got even more heated when Krugman weighed in, taking them to task for falling into the “trap of counterintuitiveness” and even misrepresenting the views of some of the very scientists they interviewed. For instance, Dubner and Levitt attribute to one scientist the view that “carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.” Once news of the controversy spread, the same source wrote on his website “Carbon dioxide is the right villain.”

The ruckus has spiraled further, with coverage from Bloomberg, the Financial Times , and the Guardian (For those keeping score, the Atlantic has a nice play-by-play). But what interests us here is that this commotion illustrates how coverage of books and print is changing. This controversy blew up so fast in part because the chapter in question was available online, well in advance of the book’s actual publication date. (Or it was available, until Levitt and Dubner’s publisher got wind of the to-do and promptly pulled it down.) Fruit-fly news cycles have long been a way of life online, but perhaps print is finally joining in.