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Here’s why I don’t trust the Nudgelords . . .

They don’t admit their mistakes. In particular, they don’t admit when they’ve been conned.

1. Freakonomics

from 2009:

A Headline That Will Make Global-Warming Activists Apoplectic

The BBC is responsible. The article, by the climate correspondent Paul Hudson, is called “What Happened to Global Warming?” Highlights:

For the last 11 years we have not observed any increase in global temperatures. And our climate models did not forecast it, even though man-made carbon dioxide, the gas thought to be responsible for warming our planet, has continued to rise. So what on Earth is going on?


According to research conducted by Professor Don Easterbrook from Western Washington University last November, the oceans and global temperatures are correlated. . . . Professor Easterbrook says: “The PDO cool mode has replaced the warm mode in the Pacific Ocean, virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling.”

Let the shouting begin. Will Paul Hudson be drummed out of the circle of environmental journalists? Look what happened here, when Al Gore was challenged by a particularly feisty questioner at a conference of environmental journalists.

We have a chapter in SuperFreakonomics about global warming and it too will likely produce a lot of shouting, name-calling, and accusations ranging from idiocy to venality. It is curious that the global-warming arena is so rife with shrillness and ridicule. Where does this shrillness come from? . . .

Ahhh, 2009. We were all so much younger then! We thought global warming was an open question. We used the word “shrill” unironically. We can’t be blamed for our youthful follies.

Sure, back in 2009 when Dubner was writing about “A Headline That Will Make Global-Warming Activists Apoplectic,” and Don Easterbrook was “virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling,” the actual climate-science experts were telling us that things would be getting hotter. The experts were pointing out that oft-repeated claims such as “For the last 11 years we have not observed any increase in global temperatures . . .” were pivoting off the single data point of 1998, but Dubner and Levitt didn’t want to hear it. Fiddling while the planet burns, one might say.

It’s not that the experts are always right, but it can make sense to listen to their reasoning instead of going on about apoplectic activists, feisty questioners, and shrillness.

But everyone makes mistakes. What bothers me about the Freaknomics team is not that they screwed up in 2009 but that they never seemed to have corrected themselves, or even realized how screwed up they were.

I found this interview from 2015 where one of the Freakonomics authors said:

I tell you what we were guilty of . . . We made fun of the environmentalists for getting upset about some other problem that turned out not to be true. But we didn’t do it with enough reverence, or enough shame and guilt. And I think we pointed out that it’s completely totally and actually much more religion than science. I mean what are you going to do about that? I think that’s just a fact.

Typical nudgelord behavior. Yammering on about how rational they are, how special it is to think like an economist, but not willing to come to terms with their own mistakes. Best defense is a good offense, don’t give an inch, etc. I hate that crap.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that the Freakonomics authors are currently pushing any climate change denial—sorry, “heresy.” They appear to have been convinced by all the evidence that’s convinced everyone else (for example, the rise in temperatures that contradicts the earlier claim they were pushing about some climate pattern “virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling”).

Their problem is not of hanging on to an earlier mistake but of not acknowledging it, not wrestling with it.

We learn from our mistakes. But only when we’re willing to learn.

Or, to put it another way: We are all sinners. But we can only be redeemed when we confront the sins within ourselves.

2. Nudge

From the celebrated book from 2008:

Brian Wansink . . . hmmm, where have we heard that name before?

But, sure, everybody makes mistakes. The Nudge authors were fooled by Wansink and his “masterpieces” of science fiction, but so were NPR, New York Times, Ted, and lots of other institutions. The Bush administration hired Wansink, but then again the Obama administration hired one of the Nudge authors. Getting conned was a bipartisan thing.

I assume the Nudge authors don’t believe Wansink now. But my problem with them is the same as my problem with the Freakonomists: no reckoning with the past. Given the hype they showered up on the now-disgraced food researcher (they described one of his experiments as “fiendish,” which I guess is more accurate than they realized), and given that they have had the time to smear their critics by analogizing them to the former East German secret police, you’d think they could’ve taken a few hours, sometime in the past couple of years, to come to terms with the fact that . . . they. got. conned. By an Ivy League professor. How embarrassing. Best not to talk about it.

But we should talk about it. We can learn from our mistakes, if we’re willing to do so.

Look. My point is not that everything in Nudge is wrong, or even that most of the things in Nudge are wrong. As the joke goes, all we know is that at least one sheep in Scotland is black on at least one side. That’s not the point. The point is that, if the Nudge recommendations are based on evidence, and some of the star evidence has been faked, maybe it’s worth reassessing your standards of evidence.

3. The Nudgelords

It’s embarrassing to admit you’ve been conned. I get it. But . . . get over it!

Or, you might think: This is yesterday’s news. The Freakonomics authors have moved on from climate change denial and the Nudge authors have left the school lunchroom behind. So why can’t we?

The reason why we can’t move on—why we shouldn’t move on—is because of the next time. And there will be a next time that these Nudgelords are swept up in enthusiasm for some idea promoted by a suave storyteller who’s unconstrained by the rules of scientific truth.

I can’t trust the Nudgelords because, if they can’t come to terms with how they got fooled last time, why should I think they won’t get fooled next time, in the very same way?

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