Freakonomics: Did It Go Right or Wrong?

2011123143328791-2012-01MacroGelmanFAFirst, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung in American Scientist:

The nonfiction publishing phenomenon known as Freakonomics has passed its sixth anniversary. The original book, which used ideas from statistics and economics to explore real-world problems, was an instant bestseller. By 2011, it had sold more than four million copies worldwide, and it has sprouted a franchise, which includes a bestselling sequel, SuperFreakonomics; an occasional column in the New York Times Magazine; a popular blog; and a documentary film. The word “freakonomics” has come to stand for a light-hearted and contrarian, yet rigorous and quantitative, way of looking at the world.

The faces of Freakonomics are Steven D. Levitt, an award-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Stephen J. Dubner, a widely published New York–based journalist. Levitt is celebrated for using data and statistics to solve an array of problems not typically associated with economics. Dubner has perfected the formula for conveying the excitement of Levitt’s research—and of the growing body of work by his collaborators and followers. On the heels of Freakonomics, the pop-economics or pop-statistics genre has attracted a surge of interest, with more authors adopting an anecdotal, narrative style.

Then a response by Stephen Dubner:

Given the nature of the Freakonomics work that Steve Levitt and I do, we get our fair share of critiques. Some are ideological or political; others are emotional.

We generally look over such critiques to see if they contain worthwhile feedback, or point to an error in need of correction. But for the most part, we tend to not reply to critiques. It seems only fair to let critics have their say (as writers, we’ve already had ours). Furthermore, spending one’s time responding to wayward attacks is the kind of chore you’d rather skip in order to get on with your work.

But occasionally an attack is so spectacularly ridiculous, so riddled with errors and mangled logic, that it’s worth addressing.

The following essay responds to two such attacks. The first one was relatively minor, a recent blog post written by a Yale professor. The second was more substantial, an essay by a pair of statisticians in American Scientist. Feel free to skip ahead to that one (at section III below), or buckle up for the whole bumpy ride.

Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber also jumps in.