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.
The interesting question to me is why is it that “pissing off liberals” is
delightfully transgressive and oh-so-fun, whereas “pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest? Based on their writings in Freakonomics 1 and their blog, Levitt and Dubner strike me as open-minded political pragmatists, so it’s not that I think they have a big political agenda.
It’s possible to write things that piss off conservatives while still retaining an edgy, transgressive feeling–take a look at Nate Silver (or, to take a less analytical example, Michael Moore)–but I think it’s a little harder to do. Flouting liberal conventional wisdom is funner somehow. As I said, I think there’s something more general going on here but I don’t feel I have a full picture of this phenomenon.
Freakonomics 1 was based on Levitt’s previous research, which was all over the map, whereas in Freakonomics 2 the authors got to choose ahead of time what to be counterintuitive about. When it comes to writing, too much freedom can be a dangerous thing! Tennis without a net and all that. When Levitt popularizes (as in the disastrous Oster/Das Gupta episode) he can come off really badly; he’s much stronger when discussing his own work.
One problem with social science methodology–when it is not accompanied by rigorous
data collection and analysis–is that it is a loose cannon that can be turned in virtually any direction to yield a counterintuitive finding. And then the question arises: how do you choose which direction to turn your cannon?
I guess there really is something to this “political correctness” thing or whatever it should be called. In Freakonomics 1, Levitt and Dubner featured some questionable work on abortion and crime. Reviewers reacted to this analysis with skepticism but didn’t condemn the whole book. In Freakonomics 2, they question global warming and there’s a veritable poopstorm of controversy. If they’re not careful, this book will send them from the “popular science” to the “political punditry” category, with no turning back. Perhaps Freakonomics 3 will have a chapter explaining why evolution is just a theory, not actually proven at all?
And just wait till some kids gets killed by a drunk driver, Freakonomics 2 is found in the glove compartment, and their parents sue Levitt and Dubner for 50 million dollars. That’ll be publicity that money can’t buy!
P.S. Uh-oh. Just to be clear, I’m not endorsing such a lawsuit.
P.P.S. I should have put this earlier, but . . . let me say how much I admire much of Levitt’s work. For whatever reason, the social science work that my collaborators and I do tends to be understated to the point of invisibility, usually staying well clear of any policy recommendations. Our splashiest, most counterintuitive findings were probably that redistricting is good for democracy (this one got us mocked in the House of Commons, one of my proudest moments) and that elections are predictable even though the polls jump around a lot. Neither of these is really so exciting, and most of my applied work is much more technical, for example our analysis of who should measure their houses for home radon. True, we did go against the EPA on this one, but we never really got political traction. So I admire the willingness of Levitt, along with other applied micoeconomists out there, to go out on a limb and make some data-based causal inferences. In particular, the Freaknomics 1 book was great. It really gave a sense of the process of social science and the interplay between subject-matter ideas, data, and analysis. (We tried to get some of that feeling of excitement into Red State, Blue State, but we couldn’t quite do it. Our book is readable, I think, and interesting, but we didn’t capture that joy of discovery.) Between Freaknomics 1 and Freakonmics 2 came years of blogging, and I wonder if that dulled Levitt’s edge. In a blog it’s just too easy to throw out ideas without seriously evaluating them. And it probably didn’t help that, with their book’s immense popularity, they were getting hundreds of admiring comments on the blog each day. In my own blog, in contrast, the comments are few enough that when somebody disagrees with me, I notice it.
P.P.P.S. More here.