How Tough a Place Is the University of Chicago?

Just about every university has an alumni magazine, and they all follow the same tried-and-true recipe: highly partisan stories touting the wonderful accomplishments of the faculty, students, athletics, and alumni.

I had always thought of my university’s alumni magazine as being cut from the same cloth.

Until I read the most recent issue, that is.

The cover story is entitled “Chicago Schooled.” It is an examination of the recent financial crisis and its implications for the free-market ideas associated with the Chicago School of Economics. It is an interesting read, and while not so critical of Chicago economics, it is far from the usual rah-rah stuff.

What really caught my attention, however, was a page-long sidebar inserted into that article with a headline that reads “Sumo Wrestlers Are Big, But Are
They a Big Question?
” The question this sidebar sets out to answer is whether or not I, Steve Levitt, ruined economics! The answer, at least according to some of my colleagues quoted in the article, turns out to be “yes.”


How did they conclude that you ruined economics?


Saying 'Freakonomics' ruined economics would be like saying 'The DaVinci Code' ruined theology. It's entertainment... designed to make one think outside the dogma of the study.


Well don't represent what is wrong with economics - Stuck in the Mud thinking!

I only hope the stopped to thing that in the environment they were once living in, their own work was once considered outrageous as well!

Joe Smith

If one nerd (no offense) can ruin economics then there wasn't much there to begin with.

The real problem that economics has is that the mainstream did not predict the housing bubble / financial meltdown and apparently has nothing useful to say about the current problems.


Sitting in a required Micro-econ class, I was assigned Freakonomics as part of the course reading. I have to say that your book changed the way I though about econ, and even made me stretch myself to go on to take such classes as Game Theory and others. I realized that some basic exposure to economic way of thinking is really a good way to be able to reason out any number of situations and choices. So, bravo for your work, as I think it has made economics interesting rather than ruined it!

science minded

In response to your question, I would say--not tough enough. The problem is not so much that Steve ruined economics, it is that the science of Economics has yet to come to terms with its history and that Steve Levitt was facilitating the process whereby this is made possible. So, in that sense, his contribution was towards securing a place for Economics among the Social Sciences-- in the sense of enabling a sociologist to make obvious the bit of a paradigm shift and "discipline" that is required from the start. This should be enough-- but if not-- keep in mind-- the real principle of "4 degrees of freedom."

Goldstein, 2009


If sparking a greater interest in economics is failure, then you are an utter failure.


well, it depends what's worse- ruining the world or ruining sumo wrestling


Eh... Freakonomics is not written for economists per se. It's meant to give a flavor of the profession to the outside world. Sure lots of economists read it - but it's not encouraging any economist to stop thinking about hug issues.

That is, the number of serious economist that have stopped trying to figure out improvements to the Taylor Rule in order to detail the market for street prostitution is vanishingly small.

Nuclear Mom

Hey, you were compared to Socrates, the Impressionists and quantum mechanics, the "winning" side on some huge shifts in conventional thinking. What a compliment!


Economics is not limited to studying money or even the Economy. As any person who took even an intro econ class will tell you rotely, it is the study of rational people responding to scarcity problems. A framework that is based on how rational people act is a great way to think about problem. It needs to be applied more not less.

I think economics is like gravity ... you can fight it, but eventually it will win.

Oh yea and thinking about solutions to global warming hardly seems trivial.


As a graduate of Chicago's now defunct Graduate Library School, I laughed when I received my glossy alumni rag. Having seen the economic value of closing GLS I wonder at the perceived value of sending me the costly mailings.


"Hey, you were compared to Socrates, the Impressionists and quantum mechanics, the “winning” side on some huge shifts in conventional thinking. What a compliment!"

By whom: "highly partisan stories touting the wonderful accomplishments of the faculty, students, athletics, and alumni."


"But to Heckman, Levitt's distraction does a disservice. 'Basic research on the economy is ugly,' he says. 'It's hard, and it's unrewarding.'"

Uh, if basic research is so valuable and Freakonomics is so trivial isn't the free market supposed to see to it that basic research IS rewarded and that you become an abject failure?


I am a PhD economist, have had the degree for 40 years, have made a comfortable living practicing that trade, and have been married for even longer. Until she read Freakonomics, my wife was totally uninterested in what it was that I did, what economics was about, etc. After Freakonomics, she takes considerable interest in economic thinking and regularly recommends the book to friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line (she is that sort of person). So I am a big Freakonomics fan and if I taught microeconomics still, I would certainly use it in my class. Can't say that about anything Heckman has ever done, Nobel or not.


If the work of one researcher can ruin the science, then perhaps it wasn't much of a science to begin with.


#11 - I'm not at all convinced that economic laws (if there are any) are like physical laws, and I'm pretty sure that there are physicists who would wholeheartedly agree. Especially since the enterprise of economics is based on human rational action.

Once we get what it is for a human being to have a non-ceteris paribus version of rational action, I might start to be persuaded. But then, getting a handle on rationality is pretty problematic in itself.

Jesse Ingram

Why would any economist study macro-economics anymore? The economic climate is determined more by the political ideology in power and the corresponding bureaucratic regulatory practices than it is by free choosing participants. The discipline of economics is once again political economy.


“Heckman doesn't cite Levitt by name, but he does complain about a trend that finds economists going after only small, manageable questions and discouraging them from pursuing problems they can't solve quickly or easily, such as the nature of business cycles. “

For all the talk about economics being or becoming a science, I think the article demonstrates the prevalence of thoroughly un-scientific thinking in the discipline. Asking small, manageable questions is how a real science works. You will never find a real scientist ridiculing another for working on an interesting triviality – that is what scientists do, and that is why science is successful.


The University of Chicago has always prided itself on its geekiness, for lack of a better word. Things that are accepted by or attract the interest of the general public have generally been disdained.

This intellectual snobbery (not necessarily a bad thing) has come to light again, in that Levitt and Dubner wrote a book that non-economists could read, understand and enjoy. Such gen pub efforts will always attract some level of disdain at the U of C.

Levitt was also open to criticism because at the U of C, anyone--including Nobel Prize winners, authors of NYT best-sellers, guests of the Daily Show, etc. -- can have his or her ideas challenged by any other member of the community -- even a first-year undergrad during Autumn quarter. In principle, anyway.

The good thing about this is that Levitt, or anyone else facing criticism at Chicago, should not take such criticism personally.