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Freakonomics Experiments

Stephen Dubner writes: Freakonomics Experiments is a set of simple experiments about complex issues—whether to break up with your significant other, quit your job, or start a diet, just to name a few. . . . a collaboration between researchers at the University of Chicago, Freakonomics, and—we hope!—you. Steve Levitt and John List, of the […]

A kaleidoscope of responses to Dubner’s criticisms of our criticisms of Freakonomics

Jonathan Cantor pointed me to a new blog post by Stephen Dubner in which he expresses disagreement with what Kaiser and I wrote in our American Scientist article, “Freakonomics: What Went Wrong?”. In response, I thought it would be interesting to go “meta” here by considering all the different ways ways that I could reply […]

Freakonomics: Why ask “What went wrong?”

A friend/colleague sent me some comments on my recent article with Kaiser Fung on Freakonomics. My friend gave several reasons why he thought we were unfair to Levitt. I’ll give my reply (my friend preferred that I not quote his email, but you can get a general sense of the questions from my answers). But […]

Freakonomics: What went wrong?

Kaiser and I tell the story. Regular readers will be familiar with much of this material. We kept our article short because of space restrictions at American Scientist magazine. Now I want to do a follow-up with all the good stories that we had to cut. P.S. Let me remind everyone once again that Freakonomics […]

Freakonomics 2: What went wrong?

Following up on Kaiser’s death-by-a-thousand-cuts (see here and here),
Mark Palko adds an entry in the “What happened with Freakonomics 2?” sweepstakes.

Palko’s theory is that Levitt and Dubner’s most logical decision, from a cost-benefit perspective, was to avoid peer review (here I’m using the term generally, considering statisticians such as Kaiser Fung as “peers” whether or not the reviewing is done in the context of a formal journal submission) so as to get a marketable product out the door with minimal effort:

I [Palko] am not saying that Levitt and Dubner knew there were mistakes here. Quite the opposite. I’m saying they had a highly saleable manuscript ready to go which contained no errors that they knew of, and that any additional checking of the facts, the analyses or logic in the manuscript could only serve to make the book less saleable, to delay its publication or to put the authors in the ugly position of publishing something they knew to be wrong.

I think this theory has a lot going for it, although maybe it could be framed in a slightly more positive way. Consider my favorite of Kaiser’s comments on Freakonomics 2:

Freakonomics again: How does a government solution seem so appealing to fans of the free market?

In the discussion of the attention-grabbing “global cooling” chapter of the new Freakonomics book,some critics have asked how it is that free-market advocates such as Levitt and Dubner can recommend climate engineering (a “controlled injection of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere”), which seems like the ultimate in big-government solutions? True, the Freakonomics recommendation comes from a private firm, but it’s hard to imagine it would just be implemented in somebody’s backyard–I think you’d have to assume that some major government involvement would be necessary.

So what gives?

Possible models for Freakonomics 3

The sequel is already assured of box-office success, so now’s the time to start thinking about what’s gonna be in volume 3. Here are a few models that Levitt and Dubner could consider, in no particular order:

Freakonomics update

Dubner defends himself here. No word on the drunk driving advice, but he has some backstory on the interviews that he and Levitt did regarding global warming. It seems pretty clear that their approach to writing Freakonomics 2 was much different than the original book: the first Freakonomics was all about Levitt’s work, whereas the most prominent part of the sequel is a discussion of the ideas of others. As I noted yesterday, this creates a huge selection issue–how did they decide whom to interview?–which is much less present in the first book. I’m also still confused that Dubner describes global warming as “a very difficult problem to solve,” given that on his blog the other day he seemed to be endorsing the view that future trends are “virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling.”

My guess is that Levitt/Dubner’s views on the topic are not completely coherent (by which I mean, not that Levitt and Dubner disagree with each other, but that between them they have a bunch of partly conflicting attitudes on the topic). As a political scientist, I’m the last person to criticize attitudes for being incoherent, and given that neither Levitt nor Dubner is an expert on climate change, it’s probably a good thing that their attitudes are fluid and not so easy to pin down. The difficulty comes when they feel the need to defend everything that they’ve written so far. Again, this is tougher to do here than in the Freakonomics 1 examples, partly because Levitt was much more of an expert on his own research than on others’ research, and partly, I suppose, because you’ll get a lot more flak in the major news media if you question global warming than if you write about the beneficial consequences of abortion.

P.S. But see the second blurb here!

My review of Freakonomics 2

The above title is a joke. I haven’t actually seen the book. As a big-time blogger, I get some books in the mail to review, but maybe this one is sitting in my NYC office. Anyway, the backlash has begun, so maybe this is the right time to buy low and be the first to offer the contrarian claim that, despite what everybody’s saying, the book is awesome.

From a short-term economics standpoint, the controversy has gotta be good for the book. So far, Levitt and Dubner have put the words “GLOBAL COOLING” on the cover of their book, they’ve endorsed a report saying that future trends are “virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling,” and that “even if man is warming the planet, it is a small part compared with nature,” and they’ve written that “we believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon and that global warming is an important issue to solve.” That last bit should do the job of ticking off anybody who was with them so far! (I was actually surprised when reading the comments on that last quote–where Levitt assures us that they do believe in global warming–that pretty much all the global-warming-skeptics among the commenters still seem to think that Levitt is on their side. I guess half a loaf is better than none at all, politically speaking, but I’m surprised that more of them didn’t get angry at Levitt for saying that.)

I don’t want to get into the substance of climate models, a subject on which I’ve worked on only a little bit. (The paper we wrote a few years ago never got published–actually, we never finished it enough to submit it anywhere–and our current work on the topic is still in the research-and-writing-up stage.) But I do want to speculate a bit on the political angle.

If anybody knows those Freakonomics people . . .

. . . could you please ask them to stop saying, “We know that voting doesn’t make good economic sense.” I recognize that “Freakonomics” is intended to be entertainment, not scholarship, but I don’t think these dudes are doing economics any favors by spreading this kind of misconception. Voting isn’t a good way to make money, but that doesn’t mean it “doesn’t make good economic sense.” The full story is here (based on an article by an economist and two political scientists). I’ll repeat here for convenience, but I recommend going to the original entry to see some of the give-and-take in the comments:

Have prices have risen more quickly for people at the bottom of the income distribution than for those at the top? Lefty window-breakers wait impatiently while economists struggle to resolve this dispute.

Palko points us to this post by Mike Konczal pointing to this news article by Annie Lowrey reporting on research by Christopher Wimer, Sophie Collyer, and Xavier Jaravel finding that “prices have risen more quickly for people at the bottom of the income distribution than for those at the top.” This new result counters an […]

“Superior: The Return of Race Science,” by Angela Saini

“People so much wanted the story to be true . . . that they couldn’t look past it to more mundane explanations.” – Angela Saini, Superior. I happened to be reading this book around the same time as I attended the Metascience conference, which was motivated by the realization during the past decade or so […]

Gigerenzer: “The Bias Bias in Behavioral Economics,” including discussion of political implications

Gerd Gigerenzer writes: Behavioral economics began with the intention of eliminating the psychological blind spot in rational choice theory and ended up portraying psychology as the study of irrationality. In its portrayal, people have systematic cognitive biases that are not only as persistent as visual illusions but also costly in real life—meaning that governmental paternalism […]

We should be open-minded, but not selectively open-minded.

I wrote this post awhile ago but it just appeared . . . I liked this line so much I’m posting it on its own: We should be open-minded, but not selectively open-minded. This is related to the research incumbency effect and all sorts of other things we’ve talked about over the years. There’s a […]

And, if we really want to get real, let’s be open to the possibility that the effect is positive for some people in some scenarios, and negative for other people in other scenarios, and that in the existing state of our knowledge, we can’t say much about where the effect is positive and where it is negative.

Javier Benitez points us to this op-ed, “Massaging data to fit a theory is not the worst research sin,” where philosopher Martin Cohen writes: The recent fall from grace of the Cornell University food marketing researcher Brian Wansink is very revealing of the state of play in modern research. Wansink had for years embodied the […]

How statistics is used to crush (scientific) dissent.

Lakeland writes: When we interpret powerful as political power, I think it’s clear that Classical Statistics has the most political power, that is, the power to get people to believe things and change policy or alter funding decisions etc… Today Bayes is questioned at every turn, and ridiculed for being “subjective” with a focus on […]

Michael Crichton on science and storytelling

Javier Benitez points us to this 1999 interview with techno-thriller writer Michael Crichton, who says: I come before you today as someone who started life with degrees in physical anthropology and medicine; who then published research on endocrinology, and papers in the New England Journal of Medicine, and even in the Proceedings of the Peabody […]

Science as an intellectual “safe space”? How to do it right.

I don’t recall hearing the term “safe space” until recently, but now it seems to be used all the time, by both the left and the right, to describe an environment where people can feel free to express opinions that might be unpopular in a larger community, without fear of criticism or contradiction. Sometimes a […]

“Recapping the recent plagiarism scandal”

Benjamin Carlisle writes: A year ago, I received a message from Anna Powell-Smith about a research paper written by two doctors from Cambridge University that was a mirror image of a post I wrote on my personal blog roughly two years prior. The structure of the document was the same, as was the rationale, the […]

Some clues that this study has big big problems

Paul Alper writes: This article from the New York Daily News, reproduced in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is so terrible in so many ways. Very sad commentary regarding all aspects of statistics education and journalism. The news article, by Joe Dziemianowicz, is called “Study says drinking alcohol is key to living past 90,” with subheading, […]