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March 22, 2012 8:13 AM Stephen J. Dubner: My Part in his Upfall

By Henry Farrell

So it appears that Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics is upset at various critics. He is deeply unhappy with Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung, for having written what appeared to me to be a skeptical but intellectually generous take on the Freakonomics project. He is angry at Ezra Klein, whom he describes as someone who is ‘in the business of attacking at any cost’ on the basis of a tweet that Dubner presents in a rather misleading fashion. And he believes that ‘a man named Chris Blattman’ (great title for a band btw), was insufficiently abject in his apologies for a post in which he suggested that Freakonomics did not provide sufficient credit to other bloggers. Dubner is entirely right when he suggests that apologies should not be self-serving. So I hope that my own apology – long overdue – is not misinterpreted as same. I’d hereby like to sincerely apologize for having done my little bit to make Stephen Dubner and the whole Freakonomics phenomenon what they are today.

Readers might be familiar with the Crooked Timber seminar that I helped with years ago on the original Freakonomics book. I can’t say what exact role it played in helping the book becoming the mass cultural phenomenon that it did, but the publicists seem to think that it played a significant role in generating publicity. Part of this was likely novelty – no-one had done anything quite like this before, so that lots of other bloggers linked to it. The revised and updated paperback edition of the book described the seminar as having provided the most astute analysis to date of the book’s arguments.

Doing this seminar was, I’m afraid, my initiative. I could try to defend myself. I (and others) were more interested in Levitt’s original academic work than the popularization. We sort of said this sotto voce in the seminar, but only sotto voce. Nor has Freakonomics been entirely bad. It’s gotten e.g. Justin Wolfers, who is excellent value for money, out into broader public circulation.

But even if it seemed a good idea at the time, I should have known better. Yes – Levitt is an interesting and original economist, but the glib contrarianism and breezy confidence that silly econometric results would tell us something valuable about the world were baked into the cake from the beginning of the Freakonomics project, and perhaps before. D-squared’s perhaps never-to-be-published CT summation of his various posts on Freakonomics makes that clear. It’s a bit like one of those high-end fashion marques that begins with haute couture, and ends up over-extending its brand by using it on everything from cheap plastic novelties to toilet paper.

Both the blog and the second book were pretty dreadful. John Quiggin has written about the contrarianism of the book, while as Andrew Gelman has hinted, he could have been a lot nastier had he wanted to be, pointing e.g. to the blog’s highlighting of results suggesting that ESP works, that the economy wasn’t actually all that bad in October 2008 etc. Nearly every time that I’ve seen Freakonomics mentioned in the last several years, I’ve felt guilty and embarrassed that I had something to do with its rise to prominence. Very likely, it would have become prominent anyway (it had a very well organized PR campaign). But perhaps, given the chanciness of social contagion etc, it would not.

In any event, there really aren’t any excuses. I’m genuinely sorry for whatever push I gave to help start the Freakonomics snowball rolling down the hill. There’s not much I can do about it now, but there you go.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Comments

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on March 24, 2012 10:41 AM:

    Dubner is a quack, always looking for the most bizarre setup to "prove" his "point." Eg, he looked at the stock market when everyone "thought" Kerry had won [!] to "show" the market doesn't care about D or R, ignoring the actual data we have about the market under Ds and Rs!

    Etc.

  • Crissa on March 24, 2012 5:29 PM:

    There was much to be gained by looking at figures and facts from other angles.

    But there's nothing to be gained from insisting you have the be the only other way to look at it. You have to be willing to be wrong some part of the time.

    I don't think Dubner is willing to be wrong.

  • skeptonomist on March 25, 2012 10:15 AM:

    I found the original book interesting because it seemed to be making an effort to popularize scientific method (not so much econometrics). But the blog was a flop although it ostensibly retained the goal - apparently because Dubner is basically a journalistic hack.

  • Steve on March 26, 2012 9:54 AM:

    I love when people take cheap shots as if no one notices it was a low blow, "Very likely, it would have become prominent anyway (it had a very well organized PR campaign)."

    And speaking of intellectual dishonesty, you argue that "the blog [is] . . . pretty dreadful" and refer to Gelman for support but if you click the link you read this:

    "As noted, we are fans of Freakonomics. I canít speak for Kaiser but I continue to read the Freakonomics blog with interest"

  • David on April 01, 2012 12:36 PM:

    Steve, Andrew Gelman is an academic. If you've spent much time around academics, you'd know that in their rather peculiar subculture, it is customary to shower some generic praise on the object of your criticism before engaging in evisceration. Pay attention to the substance, not the niceties, with members of that tribe.

  • Dan on April 05, 2012 8:22 PM:

    "glib contrarianism" is THE pinpoint accurate description.

  • anonymoo on April 12, 2012 10:47 AM:

    As the stateless of the world found a refuge in the cloud, so now they're your economic future. And journalistic hacks share an extreme death-rate...