Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What is common between Al Gore, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner?

In his world famous and super successful documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore utilises a lot of research and some sensational material that highlights the harm that the present lifestyle of humans can cause to mother Nature. He uses this to encourage and promote lifestyle changes that can atleast slow down, if not prevent, global warming. But, he faces a very steep uphill, because of the kind of opposition he is going to face to induce such lifestyle changes. Lobbyists from the oil industry, who need people to keep consuming oil and petrochemicals, even the automobile and airlines industries and many more people. These industries are easy targets as you can just give some large numbers on the carbon dioxide emissions emitted by them and introduce a guilt in the peoples' minds everytime they travel.

While I am not debating about who is the biggest villain and the best target to knock off first, let us look at how Al Gore has made his documentary. Let us accept that the only research that Gore has done is to collect data that highlights the causes of global warming. This has been done through published literature and talking to experts who have worked in this area for a long time. Gore has himself not performed any of the studies that have been used to build his documentary. Thus, Gore relies on and believes in the studies of the experts.

In their book Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner argue that while Al Gore's campaign is definitely good, it entails a lot of cost as it involves inducing behavioural changes in the humans. Instead, they suggest an alternate route that is cheaper and yet effective. Economists always attach a cost with any activity. But, what is forgotten, or deliberately avoided, is the fact that while we pay each other for the goods and services obtained, how do we pay back the nature, who is the source of all things living and nonliving? Nature doesn't accept currency. What it is currently accepting, is the burden of waste and emissions created by unmindful human activity.

In the chapter on Global Warming, Levitt and Dubner highlight some innovative(?) solutions that people are working on to reduce global warming. For most of their chapter, they rely on work done by a company called Intellectual Ventures (IV). IV is a company that is "building a portfolio of patents and creating an Invention Capital." It has also recently started its own research labs, where they try to find cost effective solutions to various existing problems. In this lab, IV researchers found out that injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere from strategic locations, global warming can be avoided. This has been based on atmospheric studies that followed the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. These studies found that the eruption caused discharge millions of tons of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere, which resulted in lower temperatures all around the world. Now, these studies and conclusions are drawn by scientists who are from prestigious institutes like MIT, Stanford, CalTech, etc. Levitt and Dubner have reported major parts of their conversation with the IV scientists.

But, what IV doesn't mention is that in 1992-93, the Ozone hole over Antarctica also reached an unprecedented size. This is merely six to eight months after the volcano exploded. Ofcourse, this may be because the amount of sulphur discharged in a short period of 1-2 days was unprecedented and staggering. And IV doesn't intend to release such amounts. Detailed arguments to oppose this strategy can lead to an independent posting on the blog.

Now, coming to the title of the post. So, what is common between Al Gore, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. They rely on the information presented by "experts" who may not have an unbiased view about their ideas. They place belief in the experts and report their views without seeming to question them too much. However, each of their experts does have an agenda in propagating his/her ideas. Getting more funding, generating profit through sale of tools and ideas are some such motives. In their first book Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner mention how information asymmetry leads to a bias in making decisions and forming views. Information asymmetry is when one party has access to certain information that it can use to its advantage, when the other party doesn't have any access to it. In this case, both parties, Gore and Levitt & Dubner are victims of information asymmetry.
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  1. A tad heavy for me this post. But could see some sense that my small understanding could decipher.

    I am glad that they atleast took up this issue of providing information to the ones who weren't aware of the happenings in the planet. What say, Vinay?


  2. @Susan,
    To live in harmony with nature, is what ancient Indian religion and society has been preaching. But, neither do we Indians, nor the westerners want to understand it and practice it.

    Only when Al Gore or Levitt & Dubner point it out, do we pay attention. Of course, the intention is good. But then, for how long can we keep manipulating the nature for our benefit? And manipulate it further to sustain or lengthen the benefits?

  3. Thats what bafles me Vinay. We were living like that but gradually our society has turned comsumerist. Leave the westerners but we ought to be judicious as our former leaders, religious texts and many other things speak of that. Has Kaliyug (if you believe that) come after all.

  4. Vinay: Something for you to say 'Thanks.' Please do drop by my blog when you have the time.

    Joy always,