October 30, 2006

David Warsh on the NYT-Steven D. Levitt conflict of interest

Via Greg Mankiw, veteran economics reporter David Warsh reflects on why Freakonomics was such a huge bestseller. In passing, he notes the conflict of interest inherent in Levitt being both a public figure covered by the New York Times and a prized contributor to the NYT:

But the column that he and Dubner write regularly for the [NYT] magazine gives the duo a disproportionate voice. It probably also insulates them to some extent from the kind of arms-length coverage of economics itself to which the Times aspires.

Levitt's landmark study (with Yale's John J. Donohue III) of the link between abortion and crime-prevention has generated considerable criticism since it was first published in 2001 -- including bitter quarrels with colleagues and peers. In a balanced and ahead-of-the-curve story in the Times' now-defunct Arts and Idea section in April 2001, Columbia University journalism professor Alexander Stille described what was then the state of play. ("... [A]s other experts have had their first chance to scrutinize the research in detail, almost every aspect of the theory has been attacked, from its assumptions to its conclusion that abortion and crime are connected, not separate trends that happened to surface at the same time. Indeed, given all the influences on the crime rate -- including the economy, the availability of guns and drugs, and policing strategies -- some critics doubt whether it is ever possible to figure out the precise relationship between the two, let alone to assert that abortion might be responsible for a 50 percent drop in crime. 'My instinct was nothing in the social sciences accounts for 50 percent of anything,' said Ted Joyce, an economist who has examined Mr. Donohue and Mr. Levitt's data and is now about to publish his own counterstudy.") Since then, the controversy has only escalated. The Wall Street Journal and The Economist have reported on the most recent aspects of it, but in the eighteen months since Freakonomics appeared, the contretemps has yet to be covered in the Times. "Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world less so," assert Dubner and Levitt in their book. So who was right? Stille and core news report? Or the Sunday Magazine, which simply ignored the misgivings?

Because I've been complaining about these obvious conflicts of interest (Levitt and Dubner are also under contract to ABC as well, with similar results) for some time, with no response from the NYT Public Editor who is supposed to watch out for things like this, it's nice to see that a respected disinterested observer like Warsh doesn't think they are crazy.

As for why Freakonomics is so popular, keep in mind that I gave the rest of the book (other than the repeated abortion-cut-crime references) a fairly positive review in VDARE.com. It is, overall, a pretty good book.

Of course, lots of pretty good books get published every month, so why was this particular one on the NYT bestseller list for a year and a half (other than the frequent hyping in the NYT)? Warsh is probably right in his article titled "CSI: Economics." People like detective stories and they like catching cheaters, so a bunch of quick stories about crime and cheating has a good chance of being popular.

Further, the detective story has a natural dynamic of adding new types of detectives using new types of tools ever since Sherlock Holmes proved the economic viability of the genre. For example, a century ago, G.K. Chesterton introduced his detective, Father Brown, who solved crime mysteries using Catholic theology. So, why not an economist-detective?

Beyond that, I think a great advantage Freakonomics enjoys is the attention-deficit-disorder randomness of its component stories. Levitt and Dubner try to contend that they are tied together by certain general principles, but they are so general that you can pick up the book on the airplane and put it down whenever you like without worrying that your are losing the thread of a cohesive overall argument, because there is really one.

It's a lot like Malcolm Gladwell's similar huge bestseller Blink, which has an overall theme -- snap judgments -- but is utterly incoherent in what it says about them. Judge Posner and I felt that the blatant contradictions within Blink were a detriment, yet, obviously, lots of readers disagreed. They don't want a cohesive true theory. They just want a bunch of anecdotes suitable for all occasions with which to impress their friends and win arguments. Because Blink contains stories about how it's right to follow your snap judgments, you can quote Gladwell when trying to talk other people into following your poorly thought out decisions. And because Blink also contains contradictory anecdotes as well about disasters caused by judging a book by its cover (but no theory for how to distinguish between good "thin-slicing" and bad), it's also useful as ammunition for arguing against other people's hasty decisions.

I suspect that I would be more popular if my writing was more random, disconnected and logically inconsistent That there is a general theory behind much of what I write -- roughly, that who your relatives are matters -- is disturbing to a lot of people. People want to make use of writing a la carte to support whatever they want to argue at the moment. That I'm trying to offer a more general approach that they use themselves to discover all sorts of connections in the human world is not what the market is looking for.

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

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