Why Yes. It’s Still True. Megan McCardle Is Always Wrong

Fair warning:  what follows couldn’t be more irrelevant in the face of the very real craziness that daily attends us.  Seriously.  This post takes roughly 1500 words to demolish a single tweet by someone better ignored altogether, Megan McArdle.  A waste, I know.

But now, courtesy of TBogg, she’s hung such a tempting curveball that I can’t resist doing that dastardly old trick of applying data to her claims.  And once again, she’s not just wrong. She’s wholly, stupidly and utterly unnecessarily wrong.  It’s my problem that I spent the effort needed to dissect that error.  What you do with that work is your concern.

So, thus warned, if you read on, don’t come to me crying about the minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

————-

Megan McArdle likes to impress her fans with the weight of her learning.  And it appears she is now taking a stroll through turf I know something about:  The Best American Science and Nature Writing series.  In a tweet, she tells her admiring bog that she is…

“Re-reading “Best Science and Nature Writing of 2005. Liked series way better before every single article had to be about the environment.”

Well, to be sure, I’m deeply moved by McArdle’s sense of aesthetic loss — but it does seem revealing that a self-described economics writer would be so offended by too great a concern for the mother of all externalities.

__

Anyway, let’s just move on to the blunt fact that, as usual, she’s wrong.__

Even allowing for the obvious resort to hyperbole, it’s simply untrue that this particular best-of series has become a one note parade of green-freakery.

It doesn’t take much to demonstrate the nonsense here. Taking McArdle’s decision to reread the 2005 volume as an indication that this particular volume doesn’t offend her delicate sensibility, we can look to 2006 and after for the sins she deplores.

Start by considering the volume editors:

2006 — Briane Greene, physicist.

2007 — Richard Preston, science writer with books on astronomy, steel, infectious disease and more.

2008 — Jerome Groopman, physician

2009 — Elizabeth Kolbert…Oh, wait, I know this one!  Yup! A bona-fide environmental writer.

2010 — Freeman Dyson, legendary physicist turned broad savant, with a somewhat skeptical view of much climate change policy prescriptions.

2011 — Mary Roach, another science writer, known for her books on sex (Bonk), death (Stiff), and living in space (Packing for Mars).

Six iterations edited by one environmental writer, two physicists, two writers who focus on narratives about everything but the environment, it seems, and one scribbling doc.

But still, I suppose, the mere fact that the guiding intelligences behind these books don’t match McArdle’s fevered image of an Earth First conspiracy doesn’t mean that these editors have not suddenly lost all interest in their own areas of knowledge and passion, and turned the entire waterfront over to crazoid tree-huggers.

But…no:

If you want to check it out for yourselves, you can find indexes of the  2006 and 2007 volumes online, with links to most of the pieces selected;  the 2010 edition’s table of contents can be found at Amazon.  I’ve got Groopman’s 2008 collection in hand as I write this, so we can review four out of the relevant six tallies to see just how poorly McArdle sees what is right in front of her:

Greene in 2006 published 25 pieces.  Of them a grand total of one had the environment as its central focus — and even that one was about the human cost of protecting habitat.

In 2007, Preston brought together 27 fine articles.  Three of them have environmental issues at their core.

Groopman in 2008 chose 24 pieces.  Only one of those is unequivocally an environmental piece — C. Josh Donlan’s Scientific American  report, “Restoring America’s Big, Wild Animals.”  A couple more are essentially public health/epidemiology stories with an environmental component.

Finally, in Freeman Dyson’s 2010 volume, we see a possible source for McArdle’s plaint.

Dyson has for many years been fascinated both by the subject of the environment and by the prospect of applying a physicist’s sensibility and intellectual tool-kit to what is clearly a major challenge facing human civilization.  This volume reflects that focus.

So how skewed is his take?

Dyson did the unusual (for this series) step of breaking his volume up into several sections, instead of the conventional alphabetical-by-author arrangement.  Parts one, two and three offer what he thinks is the best writing (of the submissions before him) on space, the biological sciences, and nature writing.  Parts four through six –half the book! — do focus on the environment. Not every piece, but hyperbole aside, still a lot in a series best known for covering the waterfront of science and nature writing.

But you have to look a little closer to see what’s really going on here.

Part four — which Dyson, thumb a bit on the scale, terms “Doom and Gloom” — offers up what he calls the “alarmist” view of the environment, and particularly climate change.

Dyson, no doomster he, uses the next section, “Small Blessings,” to begin to make the case for his disagreement.  Interestingly, these pieces contain not so much environmental reporting as science and technology writing in the conventional sense.  Case in point: Dyson’s pick of Michael Specter’s New Yorker story, “A Life of its Own,” on the research into and ethics of synthetic biology.

Part six, “Big Blessings,” builds Dyson’s argument to its crescendo, with an attempt to document both high and low tech responses to major environmental issues.  There you’ll find pieces by Richard Manning, Burkhard Bilger, Evan Osnos and George Black, telling stories that range from a low tech response to the carbon impact of beef production in the US, to the health and environmental ambitions of folks trying to design better stoves for the developing world, to approaches to environmental concerns in China and India.

By now what Dyson is doing should be obvious.  He’s not simply reacting to what he terms, somewhat acidly (and sadly inaccurately) “the most fashionable subject of popular writing in recent years.”

Rather, he is arguing a brief he’s advanced elsewhere: that environmentalism is a secular religion (in which faith he shares); that there are huge real problems; and that what he terms the “climate alarmist” position — which he honorably represents in this collection — is at once based on faulty basic science and underestimates the power of currently available approaches to respond to the very real issue of climate change.

Now you can disagree with plenty of Dyson’s views about climate science* but for now, look at what he is doing as a matter of rhetorical craft.   He does not simply shower dread environmentalism on the unwary reader — as McArdle’s tweet would imply of the series as a whole.

Rather, he wields his editorial tools to construct a complex chain of reasoning — leading his audience through a sequence of ideas by documenting a major human problem and then suggesting possibly unfamiliar responses to it.

To get back to McArdle:  I warned you up front, that I’d be building an enormous superstructure erected on the flimsiest of foundations, a silly quote generated by a shallow and careless mind.

But what’s more interesting to me than her truly minor jape is what her error says about both McArdle and those who employ her:

If McArdle is so horrified by the idea of environmental problems that one or two pieces out of twenty or more becomes “every single article,” then that reinforces an impression, long in the making, that no actual empirical knowledge can penetrate her carapace of assumptions and received wisdom.

And this is why I’ve gone on so long.  I’ve written before that McArdle does regular and sustained damage to the institutions that host her, and to the colleagues whose work is colored, no matter how unfairly, by the stink of sloppiness that emanates from her.  A tweet is just a tweet, of course, and one should rarely read that much into 140 characters.
But no tweet is an island either, and it’s the fact that this is one more drop in a rain of error that caught my eye.

Which is to say that if, despite her long trail of mistakes — those as trivial as the one documented at painful length above, and those much, much more consequentialThe Atlantic chooses to retain her as its “Business and Economics Editor,” then even her silliest, most minor missteps become emblems of that outlet’s editorial judgment.   And that’s not good, not for the operation, nor that surviving cadre of excellent journalists who do publish there.

Enough.  I think 1500 words, give or take, against a few score characters is perhaps overkill.  Ah well.

*I do.  But that’s for a different post.

Images:  Vincent van Gogh, The Factory at Asnieres, 1887.

J. W. T. Turner, The Shipwreck of the Minotaur, c. 1810.






48 replies
  1. 1
    Epicurus says:

    I have a somewhat simpler explanation. Ms. McArdle is an “economist” who does not know how to count. As for her continued employment at the Atlantic? Some mysteries have no answers.

  2. 2
    Bulworth says:

    It’s truly discouraging and a sign of political correctness run amok that a magazine called Science and Nature would end up being about…science and nature.

  3. 3
    Steve M. says:

    Not intended to be a factual statement.

  4. 4
    j low says:

    Isn’t there a distant planet that Brooks and McArdle could be sent to?

  5. 5
    jl says:

    I think Dyson actually agrees with consensus climate science. I think he has very good points about the need to avoid pessimistic Donner Party alarmist doom and gloom environmentalism.

    What bothers me, and it is a very big bother which concerns Dyson’s soundness of judgment for solving any practical problem is his immediate enthusiasm for speculative and risky environmental engineering. No crummy conservation, efficiency gains and carbon taxes for him. No indeed. Artificial carbon eating tree farms, terraforming and what not.

    He has continued this in the face of some dramatic breakthroughs that keep coming. For example, see Krugman’s post this week on Caltech research that has increased the efficiency of solar windmill farms by a factor of ten in demonstrations. Done using a modification of an existing windmill design and through careful analysis of the interference patterns of the airflow through the windmills.

    I would think a mathy physicist like Dyson would be all over that kind of thing. But he seems to only want really grand and outrageous things like massive engineered carbon sinks, or biomechanical synthetic plant life.

    Reading Dyson on the global warming gives me the impression that he is brilliant physicist who understands principles deeply and can explain things clearly, but in practical terms, is a little nutty.

    But, to be honest, that was my opinion before he wrote about global warming, so there is a bias alert.

  6. 6
    les says:

    @j low:
    I think they’re already on another planet; if only we could cut the communication line…

  7. 7

    I, for one, am SHOCKED to learn that “Best Science and Nature Writing of 2005″ is overly dominated with stories about the environment! What does nature have to do with the environment, anyway?

    { face palm }

  8. 8
    jake the snake says:

    If anyone has read Fred Pohl’s “Starburst”, I recommend we sent them to Alpha-Aleph.

    http://www.sfsite.com/~silverag/starburst.html

  9. 9
    Mr. Upright says:

    You just need to learn to read in McMegan style. For example, in your post you used the term “carapace” which refers to part of an animal’s exoskeleton. This makes your post an environmental article and therefore entirely uninteresting.

  10. 10
    Downpuppy says:

    Weird to see you & McMegan essentially doing the same thing – Promoting the books. Even wierder that she didn’t do it through her Amazon links & try to make a few bucks.

    So I’ll do it too : Run to the library & grab any volumes you can. Great at the beach or in the study with a sherry.

  11. 11
    Jewish Steel says:

    her admiring bog

    hee hee!

  12. 12
    Violet says:

    McMegan likes pink Himalayan salt. Salt comes from the earth. Therefore McMegan is an environmentalist. Why does Megan hate herself?

  13. 13

    I do not understand why Megan McCardle has a job. I really don’t.

  14. 14
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    @JL
    I actually agree with Dyson in his mania for large scale engineering projects. Not to sound too much like a conservative disappointed with the modern era, but there is much less enthusiasm these days (as compared to 50 years ago or so) for exactly those large scale enterprises. There’s soo much pessimism among people on the left (who’d normally be all into science and whatnot, except when it intersects with engineering, apparently). Its like…anti-humanism has taken a a hold.

  15. 15
    NonyNony says:

    @violet

    Why does Megan hate herself?

    I think the answers to THAT question might explain a lot about McArdle.

    Because I know you’re being snarky, but I really do think she’s got a lot of self-esteem issues. Sometimes I wonder if she might be a better person if her parents had just hugged her more as a child.

  16. 16
    jl says:

    @14 Amanda

    I like large scale enterprises too. But when one is not sure whether they will actually work, and if safer more reliable smaller and less dramatic measures could also work, and it is easier and safer to find out whether the smaller and safer wold work, then it’s better to pay a lot of attention to the smaller, safer and less dramatic. Dyson pays very little attention, in fact, seems to dismiss them.

    A CA high speed rail project is one thing. Half a dozen in the right areas is even better.

    Inventing artificial life synthetic biomechanical forests to soak up carbon? No thanks, I’d prefer some more choices than that.

  17. 17
    trollhattan says:

    She keeps popping up everywhere, time and again. I agree that it speaks poorly of those who give her a platform from which to spew nonsense. Worse, it’s nonsense for hire.

    I believe this sums up how McMegan prefers her science packaged.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/scie.....0/sep/24/1

  18. 18
    pragmatism says:

    jeebus. megs made her commentariat mad today because she forgot to high broder her critique of the gopers. she trained them too well.

  19. 19
    cmorenc says:

    “A fool can ask more questions than seven wise men can answer”.

    Seven wise men could spend their entire careers assembling the documentation to refute what this one foolishly ignorant woman can scribble.

    HOW does this woman to keep her job at the Atlantic? Who there with enough power has taken it upon themselves to harbor her protected under their wing? What sort of favorable connection does she have with this person (or persons), or perhaps what sort of hold does she have over them that make them fearfully reluctant to kick her out?

  20. 20
    AAA Bonds says:

    Look, unlike the look-at-FDL stuff, the McArdle Watch works effectively against the mainstreaming of the far right.

    What’s more, I think McArdlism is representative of the “reasoned” libertarian movement as a gaggle of overgrown college sophomores: these people are love to announce their hard-nosed skepticism and empiricism, but few of them actually feel obligated to check basic facts.

    Anything you deploy against McArdle can usually be reused over and over against other libertarians to great effect.

    Just because some of us get cranky over finding the front page filled with shit-fit articles about some other lefty blog doesn’t mean that you or Doug have to feel bad about hunting McArdle. I think most of us welcome these stories.

  21. 21
    agrippa says:

    I love the smell of fatuity in the morning.

  22. 22
    Surly Duff says:

    While it always amuses me to read these takedowns of McCardle, it saddens me that it is necessary because a magazine if willing to allow her to write so much unsubstantiated and nonfactual tripe so consistently.

  23. 23
    DFH no.6 says:

    This is about as simple as it gets.

    For McArdle – as for pretty much every wingnut with a platform (as well as the legions of them without) – the “environment” is not something real to be concerned about, but a mythical false-religion construct created by dirty hippies (liberals) back in the 60s as one more angle to impose their dastardly soshulism on The Job Creators. As such, it must be denigrated at every turn (including dumb-ass tweets).

    Like almost everything subscribed to by conservatives this is tribal dogma, empirical reality be damned.

    And a little hyperbole (“every single article”) in service of The Greater Truth is not only noble and right, but even more satisfying and pleasurable if (when) it pisses off liberals.

    I have no doubt McArdle realizes her little tweet-claim about the Science and Nature series is factually inaccurate (and knew it when she wrote it). I also have no doubt she believes there’s nothing the least bit wrong with that.

    Doublethink is a feature, not a bug, of conservatism.

  24. 24

    We can’t trust a word she says–it’s just amazing. Partly it’s because she depends on her memory instead of doing research, but mostly because she just tells herself and everyone else what she wants to hear.

    The fact that she still has a job and is appearing often in the media at large tell us that Bradley knows exactly what she is doing and approves of it.

  25. 25
    Pococurante says:

    @5 jl

    … would think a mathy physicist like Dyson would be all over that kind of thing. But he seems to only want really grand and outrageous things like massive engineered carbon sinks, or biomechanical synthetic plant life.

    This is the guy who gave us the Dyson Sphere. They don’t get much more grandiose than that.

  26. 26
    Brachiator says:

    Why Yes. It’s Still True. Megan McCardle Is Always Wrong.

    She is a living refutation of the adage that “even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day.”

  27. 27
    The Moar You Know says:

    I bought that pink Himalayan salt. It tastes like dirt.

  28. 28
    RP says:

    Why does Megan hate herself?

    This reminds me of one of the greatest Curb your Enthusiasm moments of all time:

    Guy: “You’re a self-hating Jew!”

    Larry: “I hate myself, but it’s not because I’m Jewish.”

  29. 29
    geg6 says:

    It is NEVER a waste of time or space to, once again and ad infinitum, take down the stupid that rains down on us from Mrs. McSuderman. The Atlantic, once a great American magazine, is now just a rag, less interesting and less accurate than The National Enquirer. Sad and embarrassing.

  30. 30
    RalfW says:

    Lead story on NBC Nightly News is that 141 million real ‘Merikans are in excessive heat zone. But, meh, McArdle thinks the enviro is boring.

  31. 31

    Gastritis broke her reading comprehension skills.

    I don’t know what’s more stunning. The fact that she and the rest of her lazy, incurious, English-mangling commrades have jobs that don’t involve slaving over a fryolator, or the fact that other people READ THEIR CRAP. Voluntarily even.

    Isn’t there a distant planet that Brooks and McArdle could be sent to?

    Yeah great. Let’s get the aliens all pissed off at us.

  32. 32

    Tom, I love your dismantling MM2 posts. Yes, her twit is silly and shallow, but it just highlights the way her mind thinks–so to speak. The fact that she’s employed as a a thinker/writer is loathsome, and she needs to keep getting called on her shit.

    @Thoughtful Black Co-Citizen: You funny. I laugh. I like!

  33. 33
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    Just because some of us get cranky over finding the front page filled with shit-fit articles about some other lefty blog

    In defense of the prevailing rightwing ideology here, it’s not just blogs. It’s anyone that fails to understand the need to do Republican shit, on Republican terms, in Republican time.

  34. 34
    kindness says:

    I was 86’d from commenting on Megan’s blog last year. I never said any bad words but I did use the term ‘hack’ a few times. Apparently at least once too many times.

    So now I don’t read her but the Cliff Notes others post. I only hope those of you out there who still have the honor and privilege of being able to tell her what you think do so….regularly.

  35. 35
    MikeJ says:

    @j low:

    Isn’t there a distant planet that Brooks and McArdle could be sent to?

    Couldn’t we save the money it would take to actually send them and *tell* them there’s a planet we’re sending them to?

  36. 36
    Tehanu says:

    Southern Beale:

    I do not understand why Megan McCardle has a job. I really don’t.

    I’m all for Megan having a job, as long as the job is scrubbing toilets at a publicly-funded home for the incontinent. Of course, chances are she’d suck at that too.

  37. 37
    Judas Escargot says:

    @Amanda:

    There’s soo much pessimism among people on the left (who’d normally be all into science and whatnot, except when it intersects with engineering, apparently). Its like…anti-humanism has taken a a hold.

    This. I somewhat bitterly snarked on this last night.

    I happen to be in San Francisco on my honeymoon, took the ferry to Angel Island earlier today, and there’s the Golden Gate Bridge off in the distance. I found myself thinking that thing was built with 1930s tech… in the middle of the Depression. This only a couple decades after the city rebuilt after the 1906 quake.

    Today? I remember after Katrina, how many people, left and right both, were openly against rebuilding New Orleans since that would be “pointless”.

    If we want to really know how and when America lost her soul, we probably have to figure out how we got from the one mindset to the other in less than a century.

  38. 38
    scav says:

    Well, one original problem with the environment, the actual external thing that is, a.k.a. reality, is that it doesn’t conform to tidy and canonical economic models: it makes things messy. Like the behavior of actual people, it’s complicated and can’t always be measured in discrete dollar-denominated increments with predictable behaviors under any and all circumstances. Something’s gotta give when faced with this décalage between preconceptions and observations. It can drive some to rethinking the models or accepting them as imperfect and fallible: it can drive others to refuse to recognize the validity of the grit in the engine, that little rift within the lute. Worse, currently the environment seems to be getting in the way of getting and doing the things she wants. Why should she want to bother her beautiful mind?

  39. 39
    AMD says:

    Yes, McMegan is an idiot and is wrong 99.99999% of the time. But I have to appreciate her posting this article:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/bus.....ng/242240/

    Because hardly anyone in the lamestream media is willing to get specific on what *exactly* it means to cut federal spending.

  40. 40
    El Cid says:

    A lot of science stuff deals with stuff in the world and even if it’s in space it can affect the world so this means these crap books are all full of environmentalist whining because sometimes what they write about happens on or affects the Earth, The End, and also SHUT UP too.

  41. 41
    Randinho says:

    I received an e-mail offer to re-subscribe to The Atlantic yesterday and responded that I would gladly renew when they rid themselves of Ms. McCardle.

    I can dream, can’t I?

  42. 42
    Anne Laurie says:

    I do not understand why Megan McCardle has a job. I really don’t.

    Why do men like Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh keep buying trophy wives? Paying McArdle to hang around with them makes the capital-L Libertarians running what used to be a great magazine assure each other that they can totally score with the hot hipster chicks, bro! Of course Megan is no former Russian underwear model, but then, the Atlantic editors don’t have Trump dollars to spend either, even if they didn’t need someone with ‘credentialed smart person’ papers.

  43. 43
    Wily Jalapeño says:

    Hey Tom,

    Just a quick note from a compulsive lurker that I absolutely love your writing here*, and that I almost look forward to the art pieces that accompany your posts more than to the posts themselves. Almost.

    *I come for the McArdle bashing, but I stay to study the way you construct your arguments, regardless of content, as a piece in and of themselves. That’s what’s so great about your posts. Thanks.

  44. 44
    Yutsano says:

    @AMD: She does still manage to fill it with her libertarian bullshit however. She’s correct up to a point, but then she can’t help herself, she HAS to go full glibertard.

    Oh and Worst. Pie. Chart. Ever.

  45. 45
    atlasfugged says:

    Simpler explanation: She never read any of the books in question. One in the series may have popped up in her Amazon recommendations or perhaps she noticed one of the books on a shelf in the library of an admired Georgetown “intellectual” whose dinner party she was once invited to. She then perused the table of contents on Amazon and considered the book read. With such scientific “reading” under her belt, she feels confident enough in her scientific erudition to misuse concepts like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in the title of one of her posts.

  46. 46
    liberal says:

    @5 jl wrote,

    Artificial carbon eating tree farms, terraforming and what not. … or biomechanical synthetic plant life.

    IIRC he once mumbled something about creating plants that convert sunlight into electricity via plain old solar photovoltaic cells. As if it wouldn’t be so hard to genetically engineer such.

    He might have a really high IQ, but I doubt he understands much biology.

  47. 47
    AMD says:

    @ 44 Yutsano, Oh of course. She wouldn’t be McMegan if she didn’t. But the list on its own is pretty stark and not one we’re seeing much anywhere else.

  48. 48
    delosgatos says:

    Chiming in a bit late to say that

    one more drop in a rain of error

    is a spectacular piece of prose. :)

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