Monday, September 17, 2007


Quick, what's the difference between bad pop-science articles in your daily blatt and bad pop-science articles in the New York Times? Answer: bad NYT pop science, like other forms of bad NYT journalism, gets past the gatekeepers a lot more easily because of the brand. When the Times says something, it's like -- well, it's like having a Harvard-trained linguist making up your data for you: We lesser mortals just sort of sit back and admit that, y'know, they laughed at Newton and all that sort of thing.

Which is the only possible explanation for the utter lack of editorial oversight that the reader is obliged to infer from this week's "Freakonomics" column:

The Jane Fonda Effect
Is a 1979 thriller to blame for America's overreliance on fossil fuels?

"Freakonomics" is the sort of hip-n-edgy trend that moves up the must-read list fast enough to make its owner-operators rather a rich lot. Unfortunately, to judge from this case, it's also happy to rely on smoke and mirrors, apparently on grounds that baseless assertions in the Times are safe from questioning because -- there you have it. It's in the Times, so it has to be true. Much more of this and "Freakonomics" is going to be consigned to the Safire Heap of History, as in: If you call Safire a column about language and this a column about quantitative social science, why not just add an astrology column to Science Times and have done with it?

Right. At this point, it's traditional to trot out the arguments-n-evidence that support the hed. Thing is, there aren't any. None. We have a lede:

If you were asked to name the biggest global-warming villains of the past 30 years, here’s one name that probably wouldn’t spring to mind: Jane Fonda. But should it?

and five grafs of unexceptional summary of "The China Syndrome" and its milieu. Leading up to:

Although some radiation was released, there was no meltdown through to the other side of the Earth — no “China syndrome” — nor, in fact, did the T.M.I. accident produce any deaths, injuries or significant damage except to the plant itself.

What it did produce, stoked by “The China Syndrome,” was a widespread panic. The nuclear industry, already foundering as a result of economic, regulatory and public pressures, halted plans for further expansion. And so, instead of becoming a nation with clean and cheap nuclear energy, as once seemed inevitable, the United States kept building power plants that burned coal and other fossil fuels. Today such plants account for 40 percent of the country’s energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions. Anyone hunting for a global-warming villain can’t help blaming those power plants — and can’t help wondering too about the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda.

Which all seems to suggest a testable hypothesis. Granted, it'd be tricky, trying to track down all the data ex post, or justify your survey's panel mortality rate, or whatever, but that's a nice, straightforward, theoretically driven Big Effects of Meedja study: Movie causes massive change in public opinion, public opinion spurs change in public policy, and the next thing you know the Atlantic is lapping at Cleveland.

But the research part -- seems like some seriously kinky multiple regression ought to underpin the Freakonomics enterprise, doesn't it? -- has nothing to do with any of that. Indeed, there isn't really a research part at all. There's a brief look at the distinction between risk and uncertainty. (Guys? That's not your "research." That's the "introduction to your lit review.") And there are some colorful descriptions of life at the nuclear plant (the sort of thing that happens when the journalist half of the team gets an MFA and ignores all those pesky methods courses). But nothing that has anything to do with testing the assertion that Jane Fonda is single-handedly killing off the polar bear.

Well, except this: Could it be that nuclear energy, risks and all, is now seen as preferable to the uncertainties of global warming?

France, which generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity by nuclear power, seems to think so. So do Belgium (56 percent), Sweden (47 percent) and more than a dozen other countries that generate at least one-fourth of their electricity by nuclear power.

Which is a nice way to fail your midterm on informal logical fallacies. France's current ratio of nuclear-generated electricity is related to changes in public opinion how again? Oh. You don't have to say because you're ... a rogue economist!

And that's it. Nothing that resembles research, and nothing that has anything to do with any if-you-were-Fox-we'd-call-'em-paranoid conjectures about Jane Fonda backing Pat Buchanan's Lincoln Navigator over a nesting pair of piping plovers.

Wait! Maybe, as the shirttail says, "more information on the research behind this column is online at at www." Let's see!

Well, sorta. We have some pictures of one of the authors visiting Three Mile Island. We have a PDF of something that looks exactly like the sort of thing power companies hand out to groups touring nuclear plants. We have a really nice piece of grownup research -- again, that's as opposed to promotional literature from power companies -- on educational outcomes of children in Sweden who were exposed in utero to Chernobyl radiation. None of which, it ought to go without saying by now, has the square root of your mama to do with Jane Fonda buying beachfront property in the Alps. And none of which is remotely related to "the research behind this column." Of which there isn't any.

Be warned, freakonomists. The road to Safiredom is short, slippery and warmed by the hellish breath of Jane Fonda. Do not tread that path. Do not seek the treasure!


Blogger Strayhorn said...

Any time I hear a word like "freakonomics" I reach for my Browning.

10:18 AM, September 18, 2007  
Anonymous raYb said...

I'm sure the putative hypothesis has nothing at all to do with Ms. Fonda being a bete noir to all right-thinking persons. Otherwise, they'd be blaming poor Jack Lemmon, the guy pushed to mental meltdown or Wilford Brimley who stood up for Jack after his untimely demise.

10:06 AM, September 19, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

Brimley in a real role!

The bottom-feeders are having a ball with Librul Newspaper Blames Hanoi Jane for Climate Hoax. Of course, if they weren't so US-centric, they could blame the director/auteur. Or, following the Chomsky model, the distribution company. Neither of which, alas, gets anywhere beyond A Couple of Guys Arguing In A Bar, science-wise. I wish the Times would cut it out.

9:58 PM, September 19, 2007  

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