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Andrew Gelman vs. Nathan Myhrvold and the Freakonomists


My last post on albedo, I promise: After seeing my recent blogs on Nathan Myhrvold, a friend told me that, in the tech world, the albedo-obsessed genius is known as a patent troll. Really? Yup. My friend writes:

It's perhaps indicative that Myhrvold comes up in the top-ten hits on Google for [patent troll]. These blog posts lay it out pretty clearly:

Just about anyone's that's been in the tech game thinks patents are ridiculous. The lab where I used to work wanted us to create an "intellectual mine field" in our field so the companycould block anyone from entering the space. Yes, we made stuff, but the patents were for totally obvious ideas that anyone would have. Even Google's PageRank was just a simple application of standard social network analysis models of authorities in networks. Who knew? I'm used to seeing Myhrvold's "Intellectual Ventures" company described adoringly by reporters from the New Yorker etc as being a place where brilliant minds create the ideas of the future. Then on the other side is this patent stuff. I know nothing about patents and so am in no position to judge this one. So let me say clearly that I'm not describing his work as patent trolling; I'm merely noting that this perception exists....

I Googled Myrhvold.... Wikipedia... describes Intellectual Ventures as In 2000 Myhrvold co-founded Intellectual Ventures, a patent portfolio developer and broker," which sounds about right, descriptive rather than pejorative. Later down on the first page of the Google search are a Wall Street Journal article referring to Myhrvold as "the king of patent aggregating" and a TechCrunch article referring to his "patent extortion fund."... [T]his shouldn't really have anything to do with the albedo fiasco, but it provides a bit more perspective, in that Myhrvold has a lot going on. Really the problem was not so much the hasty statements about albedo, so much as the tendency of various journalists from Levitt to Lanchester to just accept them without checking with a physicist. (As a physics graduate myself, I can assure you that a degree in physics does not immunize a person from making physics mistakes.)


Physics is hard - : Readers of this bizarre story (in which a dubious claim about reflectivity of food in cooking transmuted into a flat-out wrong claim about the relevance of reflectivity of solar panels) might wonder how genius Nathan Myhrvold (Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Princeton at age 24, postdoc with Stephen Hawking for chrissake) could make such a basic mistake.... Phil is surprised I didn't take a stronger stance on the albedo issue after reading Pierrehumbert's explanation. Phil asks: Why did I write "experts seem to think the albedo effect is a red herring" instead of something stronger such as, "as Pierrehumbert shows in detail, the albedo effect is a red herring"? I didn't do this because my physics credentials are no better than Myhrvold's. And, given that Myhrvold got it wrong, I don't completely trust myself to get it right!

I majored in physics in college and could've gone to grad school in physics--I actually almost did so, switching to statistics at the last minute. I could be a Ph.D. in physics too. But I've never had a great physical intuition. I could definitely get confused by a slick physics argument. And I suspect Myhrvold is the same way. Given what he's written on albedo, I doubt his physics intuition is anywhere near as good as Phil's. My guess is that Myhrvold, like me, got good grades and was able to solve physics problems but made a wise choice in leaving physics to do something else.

Now, it's true, I don't think I would've made Myhrvold's particular mistake, because I would've checked...


A possible resolution of the albedo mystery!: Remember that bizarre episode in Freakonomics 2, where Levitt and Dubner went to the Batcave-like lair of a genius billionaire who told them that "the problem with solar panels is that they're black." I'm not the only one who wondered at the time: of all the issues to bring up about solar power, why that one?

Well, I think I've found the answer in this article by John Lanchester:

In 2004, Nathan Myhrvold, who had, five years earlier, at the advanced age of forty, retired from his job as Microsoft's chief technology officer, began to contribute to the culinary discussion board "Modernist Cuisine" contains hundreds of pages of original, firsthand, surprising information about traditional cooking. Some of the physics is quite basic: it had never occurred to me that the reason many foods go from uncooked to burned at such speed is that light-colored foods reflect heat better than dark: "As browning reactions begin, the darkening surface rapidly soaks up more and more of the heat rays. The increase in temperature accelerates dramatically."

Aha! Now, I'm just guessing here, but my conjecture is that after studying this albedo effect in the kitchen, Myhrvold was primed to see it everywhere. Of course, maybe it went the other way: he was thinking about solar panels first and then applied his ideas to the kitchen. But, given that the experts seem to think the albedo effect is a red herring (so to speak) regarding solar panels, I wouldn't be surprised if Myhrvold just started talking about reflectivity because it was on his mind from the cooking project. My own research ideas often leak from one project to another, so I wouldn't be surprised if this happens to others too.

With background:

RealClimate: An open letter to Steve Levitt: Dear Mr. Levitt,

The problem of global warming is so big that solving it will require creative thinking from many disciplines. Economists have much to contribute to this effort....

By now there have been many detailed dissections of everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics, but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them....

I will take Nathan Myhrvold’s claim about solar cells, which you quoted prominently in your book, as an example. As quoted by you, Mr. Myhrvold claimed, in effect, that it was pointless to try to solve global warming by building solar cells, because they are black and absorb all the solar energy that hits them, but convert only some 12% to electricity while radiating the rest as heat, warming the planet. Now, maybe you were dazzled by Mr Myhrvold’s brilliance, but don’t we try to teach our students to think for themselves? Let’s go through the arithmetic step by step and see how it comes out. It’s not hard.

Nathan Myhrvold and the Freakonomists:

Freakonomics » Are Solar Panels Really Black? And What Does That Have to Do With the Climate Debate?: The Internet provides the ultimate extremist platform. Every blogger can reach millions, and given the lack of scrutiny or review over content, there is little accountability. Indeed, the more over-the-top the discourse is the better — because it is entertaining. Ancient Romans watched gladiators in much the same way that we read angry bloggers.

That seems to be the case with Joe Romm, a blogger with strong views about global warming and what he calls “climate progress.” In a recent series of blog posts, Romm levels one baseless, bald charge after another. What provoked this? The best summary I’ve seen comes from a comment by DaveyNC to the Freakonomics blog which says:

No, no, no, no — you have committed apostasy; heresy! You are not allowed to speak of warming except in the most emotional, alarmist tones!

You are not allowed to follow an objective, skeptical line of reasoning in this matter. You are not allowed to consider whether or not it is cost-efficient or even possible to cease all carbon emissions; you simply must do it.

That pretty much sums it up, as far as I can tell.... As an example, he goes on and on about a comment that I made about how solar photovoltaic cells have a problem because they are black. Romm attacks me as if I think that this means that solar cells are bad. Yet that wasn’t the point in SuperFreakonomics at all. I am quoted in the book as follows:

As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12 percent gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat — which contributes to global warming. Although a widespread conversion to solar power might seem appealing, the reality is tricky. The energy consumed by building the thousands of new solar plants necessary to replace coal-burning and other power plants would create a huge long-term “warming debt,” as Myhrvold calls it. “Eventually, we’d have a great carbon-free energy infrastructure, but only after making emissions and global warming worse every year until we’re done building out the solar plants, which could take 30 to 50 years.”...

Since this is at least partly a technical point, I will go to the trouble of explaining it further.

The point I was making to Dubner and Levitt is the following: when you build a solar plant it costs you energy.... Solar cells pretty much have to be “black” in the energetic side of the solar spectrum because they absorb sunlight! Of course no material is a perfect absorber, so when I say “black,” what I mean is very high absorption of light — 90 percent or more. Solar cells often have a bluish tint to them because they reflect a tiny bit more blue light than other colors, but that is small enough that it doesn’t matter for our purposes here....

It’s well known in climate circles that the Earth’s albedo (how much light the surface reflects from the surface) is very important. It’s one of the reasons climate scientists are worried about Arctic sea ice melting; you go from a white surface that reflects 90 percent of the light (albedo 0.9) to ocean which is almost black and reflects 10 percent or less (for an albedo of 0.1). Climate studies published in peer-reviewed journals have shown that making roofs white would potentially be a great help against global warming. Other studies have looked at the impact of forests and logging on albedo. It is well known that albedo matters; this isn’t my private theory — it is mainstream climate science...