Almost nobody (including me) took seriously the defamation suit filed by itinerant economist John R. Lott against celebrity Freakonomist Steven D. Levitt. After all, Lott is a kind of odd-looking guy with a tightly wound personality, while Levitt is the mediagenic embodiment of boyishly-appealing supergenius. Yet, I now guess I was wrong. The news of the proposed settlement, especially the "doozy of a concession" that Levitt is making to Lott, appears to validate Levitt's whispered-about reputation as a nasty in-fighter at academic politics, a bad man to get on the bad side of.
A Nobel Laureate invited me to speak at a discussion of Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory at a big economics conference, but the session never materialized because Levitt's critics within the economics profession were reluctant to challenge Levitt in a venue likely to rouse his ire. As one young economist who had written a paper punching holes in Levitt's most famous theory explained to me why he wouldn't participate in the Laureate v. Levitt smackdown, "There's an old African saying: 'When the elephants wrestle, the grass gets trampled."
The Chronicle of Higher Education now reports that Levitt has offered "a doozy of a concession" to make the lawsuit go away:
Unusual Agreement Means Settlement May Be Near in 'Lott v. Levitt'
John R. Lott Jr.’s defamation lawsuit against his fellow economist Steven D. Levitt has provisionally been settled — but it may yet roar back to life.
In documents filed today in federal court, the two parties outlined a settlement that requires Mr. Levitt, who is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the best-selling book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything, to send a letter of clarification to John B. McCall, a retired economist in Texas.
Mr. Lott’s lawsuit alleges that Mr. Levitt defamed him in a 2005 e-mail message to Mr. McCall (who, contrary to what was reported in an earlier version of this blog item, is not the same John McCall who once taught Mr. Lott at the
The letter of clarification, which was included in today’s filing, offers a doozy of a concession. In his 2005 message, Mr. Levitt told Mr. McCall that “it was not a peer-refereed edition of the Journal.” But in his letter of clarification, Mr. Levitt writes: “I acknowledge that the articles that were published in the conference issue were reviewed by referees engaged by the editors of the JLE. In fact, I was one of the peer referees.”
Mr. Levitt’s letter also concedes that he had been invited to present a paper at the 1999 conference. (He did not do so.) That admission undermines his e-mail message’s statement that Mr. Lott had “put in only work that supported him.”
The provisional settlement is simple: Beyond the letter of clarification, the agreement does not require any formal apology from Mr. Levitt, and no money will change hands. [More]
My Washington Times review of Lott's anti-Freakonomics book Freedomnomics is here.