April 11, 2006

This should be fun

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Best-seller leads scholar to file lawsuit: Defamation allegation targets U. of C. author

A scholar known for his work on guns and crime filed a defamation lawsuit Monday against University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, co-author of the best-seller "Freakonomics."

John Lott Jr. of Virginia, a former U. of C. visiting professor, alleges that Levitt defamed him in the book by claiming that other scholars had tried and failed to confirm Lott's conclusion that allowing people to carry concealed weapons reduces crime. Publishers Weekly ranked "Freakonomics" eighth this week for non-fiction hardcover books.

According to Levitt's book: "When other scholars have tried to replicate [Lott's] results, they found that right-to-carry laws simply don't bring down crime."

But according to Lott's lawsuit: "In fact, every time that an economist or other researcher has replicated Lott's research, he or she has confirmed Lott's conclusion."

By suggesting that Lott's results could not be replicated, Levitt is "alleging that Lott falsified his results," the lawsuit says.

Lott is seeking a court order to block further sales of "Freakonomics" until the offending statements are retracted and changed. He is also seeking unspecified money damages.

Lott acknowledged in the suit that some scholars have disagreed with his conclusions. But he said those researchers used "different data or methods to analyze the relationship between gun-control laws and crime" and made no attempt to "replicate" Lott's work.

I don't believe I've ever offered a public opinion on the more guns, less crime controversy. These things are complicated. Logically, it could go either way. Certainly, there are fewer home invasions in America than in England because American home-owners are so much better armed. On the other hand, having lots of guns around means that some disputes that would merely be assault and battery in England turn into homicides here.

What I have found out from talking to economists in recent years is that the profession is a lot less based on what-you-know than you might expect, and a lot more driven by who-you-know. Although he definitely has his detractors within the profession, Levitt is extremely well connected and thus lots of lower-ranking economists are afraid to call him on his empirical and ethical lapses for fear that Levitt will have his revenge on their careers.

In his hugely successful attempt to turn himself into a brand name celebrity (see him on ABC's 20/20 tonight!), Levitt has managed to turn his legalizing-abortion-cut-crime theory into conventional wisdom in the mass media, even though the great majority of social scientists who have studied the question in intense detail don't find he has come close to meeting the burden of proof. The recent seminar at the American Enterprise Institute brought up many of the empirical problems with the theory, all of which Levitt forgot to mention in Freakonomics. Instead, Levitt implied that his critics were only motivated by moralistic objections. For a brief summary of the empirical failings of the theory, see here.

To turn yourself from scholar to careerist to celebrity, you need to divest yourself of the values of the scholar and put on the values of the celebrity -- you must tell people what they want to hear. For example, consider the Bill Bennett Brouhaha of last fall, when Bennett offered a reductio ad absurdum against abortion based on the 2001 Levitt-Donohue paper's argument that the greater effect of legal abortion on blacks, who have a higher crime rate, should have reduced crime. When attacked, Bennett pointed out, quite right, that the argument was an inherent part of the popular, widely-celebrated Levitt-Donohue theory. In response, Levitt tried to mislead the press into believing that he had not brought race into his theory. This was even though Levitt and Donohue had written in 2001:

"Fertility declines for black women are three times greater than for whites (12 percent compared to 4 percent). Given that homicide rates of black youths are roughly nine times higher than those of white youths, racial differences in the fertility effects of abortion are likely to translate into greater homicide reductions. Under the assumption that those black and white births eliminated by legalized abortion would have experienced the average criminal propensities of their respective races, then the predicted reduction in homicide is 8.9 percent. In other words, taking into account differential abortion rates by race raises the predicted impact of abortion legalization on homicide from 5.4 percent to 8.9 percent."

But that kind of eugenic-sounding argument is not what Levitt's public wanted to hear in 2005, so he weasled out of telling the press the truth about the Levitt-Donohue theory during the Bennett Brouhaha, and left Bennett to twist in the wind while sidestepping his personal responsibility.

Levitt's tenure as a NYT columnist has been an ethical travesty. For example, Levitt grandiosely promoted his former assistant's "Job Market Paper" as "an empirical argument that may fundamentally challenge how people think about sex" without disclosing to readers either his relationship with his former aide or that that the kid's finding wasn't statistically significant.

Thus, I was pleased to see that Levitt has been replaced as a New York Times columnist by economist-aesthete Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution. Tyler is an altogether more admirable person than Levitt. Tyler's basic shtick is to ask "Why is X true?" Then he proposes a number of clever explanations, tells you which one is his favorite, then asks for your thoughts. In contrast, Levitt typically comes up with one explanation and denigrates anybody who comes up with others.

It's also worth mentioning that the advent of hilariously hagiographic journalist Stephen J. Dubner in Levitt's life has been bad for Levitt's soul. By himself, Levitt is a poor prose stylist. When I debated him in Slate.com in 1999, I felt sorry for him because his response was so weakly written. But, Dubner is a facile, persuasive-sounding professional writer, who makes Levitt's slap-dash ideas sound more plausible than they really are. Plus, Dubner worships Levitt, which feeds into Levitt's egomania.

Here's the review of Freakonomics in The Guardian, which captures the clammy nature of the book's love affair with itself better than anything else I've seen:

Allen Lane writes:

In the summer of 2003 the New York Times sent the journalist Stephen J Dubner to interview the heralded maverick economist Steven D Levitt. What were the chances of two men with extraneous initials being attracted to one another? Higher than you might think. Levitt recognised in Dubner a man with a gift for hagiography, while Dubner knew a meal ticket when he saw it...

Levitt is a noetic butterfly that no one has pinned down, but is claimed by all.

What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? They all cheat. I know this will come as a terrible shock but dreary data proves it is true.

Levitt is one of the most caring men in the universe.

Why do so many drug dealers live with their mom? Amazingly, I can prove that most of them earn far less than you might imagine.

Levitt is genial, low-key and unflappable...

Levitt is about to revolutionise our understanding of black culture. Even for Levitt this is new turf.

Update: Levitt says he hasn't been replaced by Tyler. In that case, it's time to publish my late January letter to the New York Times' Public Editor:

Dear Mr. Calame:

I have a number of concerns about the relationship between economist Steven D. Levitt and the New York Times that you might wish to consider.

1. Your January 27th article "Students Are Leaving the Politics Out of Economics" by LOUIS UCHITELLE is largely a tribute to the perceived influence of Dr. Steven D. Levitt on young economists. Yet, it nowhere mentions than Dr. Levitt is a also co-columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Shouldn't readers of the article have been informed that the New York Times has a financial interesting in promoting the reputation of Dr. Levitt?

2. The article three times refers to Dr. Levitt's most famous theory -- that legalizing abortion significantly cut the crime rate in America. Nowhere does it mention that last year two economists at the Boston Federal Reserve Bank showed that Dr. Levitt's theory was based on two technical errors he had made and that when the errors are fixed, his data showed no connection between abortion and the crime rate. Both the Wall Street Journal and The Economist gave prominent coverage to this news, but I haven't seen the NYT mention that their columnist's best known theory was based on his own errors. Shouldn't the article have mentioned the controversy over the validity of Dr. Levitt's theory? (For details on this, see http://www.isteve.com/freakonomics_fiasco.htm ).

3. Dr. Levitt used his December 11th column in the New York Times Magazine, entitled "The Economy of Desire," to promote a new unpublished paper by U. of Chicago grad student Andy Francis as:

" ... an empirical argument that may fundamentally challenge how people think about sex."

A rather grandiose claim!

A. It turns out that Andy Francis was a research assistant to Dr. Levitt in 2003-2004.

B. Mr. Francis is currently looking for a job as an economist and he describes the paper praised by Dr. Levitt in the New York Times as his “Job Market Paper.”

C. Unfortunately, Levitt didn't bother to inform the NYT-reading public that the claim trumpeted as a fundamental breakthrough -- that men with a relative with AIDS avoid gay sex -- was based on a sample size so tiny, only 60 individuals in total, that Francis's study did not attain statistical significance even at the loose 5 percent level.

While this apparent attempt by Dr. Levitt to use his soapbox in the New York Times to help out an old student’s job search certainly reflects well on his amiability, my vague impression is that the NYT prefers that its writers disclose this kind of conflict of interest to readers. Perhaps Dr. Levitt obtained a waiver of the disclosure policy in this case from his editors? Or perhaps he forgot to mention it to them at the same time he was forgetting to mention to his readers that Francis's study was statistically insignificant?

Best wishes,

Steve Sailer

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

No comments: