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.”

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COMMENTS: 42


  1. Paul says:

    How did they conclude that you ruined economics?

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  2. Wes says:

    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.

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  3. Legin says:

    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!

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  4. Joe Smith says:

    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.

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  5. Caitlin says:

    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!

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  6. science minded says:

    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

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  7. DaveyNC says:

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

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  8. frankenduf says:

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

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  9. Greg says:

    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.

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  10. Nuclear Mom says:

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

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  11. adam says:

    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.

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  12. Peggy says:

    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.

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  13. jose says:

    “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.”

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  14. RCHughes says:

    “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?

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  15. John says:

    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.

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  16. Daniel says:

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

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  17. Caliphilosopher says:

    #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.

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  18. Jesse Ingram says:

    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.

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  19. Leo says:

    “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.

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  20. Kent says:

    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.

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  21. Kevin H says:

    Sounds like a bit of sour grapes to me. It is the tried and true scientific model to tackle the problems you can, and save the problems you can’t for another day. The wonderful power of science is that solving simple problems gives you the tools to start solving more complex problems, and generally is a lot more productive than trying to solve the big problem directly.

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  22. Liz says:

    Psh. If it’s any consolation, you taught more kids to think than any other professor I encountered. It’d be hard to ruin a discipline by churning out 50 inspired kids per class.

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  23. Jason says:

    Heckman doesn’t even consider the possibility that, of the 3 million or so Freakonomics readers, there’s a great chance that a handful at least will become so enamored with the subject matter that they’ll make that a career path. Some of those may well find it within themselves to research those matters he believes are being overlooked.

    Let’s return to the impact of Freakonomics in, say, 15 years….

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  24. Dave says:

    Although the U Chicago Magazine sidebar was technically about Prof Levitt, it actually said more about:

    Academic departments – Imagine a workplace where you can direct pot shots at your colleagues thru the media. Try doing that at IBM, a law firm, the police dept, the hospital, etc. and see how it goes over. Yet further proof that academic depts are strange places.

    U of Chicago – the ultimate ‘blood on the carpets’/mano-a-mano environment where everyone argues about everything. If Prof Heckman made these statements in a workshop (seminar), nobody would bat an eye. Much harsher things are said on a weekly basis at the various econ workshops around the U of C.

    Prof Heckman – I recently read (perhaps on this website) that economists’ terms of choice for describing their colleagues are ‘smart’ and ‘nice.’ Let’s put it this way, almost everyone would agree that Prof Heckman is smart, almost no one would call him nice. Think of a word that rhymes with bassbowl.

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  25. Chris Geller says:

    You took my book away by writing it first. Good on ya mate! I switched from economic anthropology to formal economics for my Ph.D. With that broader view, I have always felt that our formalist schools have missed the heart of economics; you came close.

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  26. J says:

    Ruined economics? I don’t think so. Economists have been working on similar questions (although some might not be as provocative) for awhile now. Levitt just brings it to a wider audience in a friendly manner. I can’t imagine the Heckman 2-step paper in Econometrica selling 4 million copies and being the talk of a nation.

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  27. James says:

    Sometimes exercises in triviality have important consequences.

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  28. HP says:

    I believe that if there were more usage of economics in the way Levitt uses it in Freakonomics, then there might be a huge improvement in many sectors of society–especially those that are closer to everyday life.

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  29. Randy says:

    Too late. The reality of economics has already proven the absolute worthlessness of academic economic theory and teachings. Economics neither a discipline nor a science, it is pure speculative fantasy.

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  30. D.S. says:

    More than anything else, Freakonomics rekindled interest in data-based economics, something that will be very important as more and more data become available about everything from people’s search-engine queries to shopping behaviors to etc…

    For a example, see this blog post by Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian:
    http://googleresearch.blogspot.com/2009/07/posted-by-hal-varian-chief-economist.html

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  31. Paul says:

    Based on my VAR model, VAR has ruined economics.

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  32. Owen says:

    It’s hard to be you.

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  33. michelle says:

    I wouldn’t be all the insulted.

    You’re still considered a “young economist,” and no one said anything really mean.

    The spirit seemed to be that you’re looking at things that most people don’t care to examine. Also, as part of your persona, you’re just have an entertaining and in the best way, “cutesy” personality. In some ways you’re sort of the Shirley Temple of economics.

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  34. susan says:

    LOL! Typical UofC stuff.

    Even funnier. Note that the economists listed are all Nobel winners, except Leavitt.

    The real “slam” would be that Leavitt has made economics approachable to the average person and not “that dismal science.” (A bit like taking a class from Paul Sally as opposed to Israel Herstein! [I could give a few other examples.]) Or, more to the UofC tradition – Leavitt’s work as noted in Freakonomics is “too practical.” I recall that the UofC turned down endowments for a college or division in engineering and/or nursing because, as the adage went, these subjects were too “practical” and not esoteric enough. I am still amazed that the University instituted a school/division of Computer Sciences. There has been a traditional divide between the Medical Campus/School and the rest of the University – the pragmatic and practical versus the “basic” sciences. There is a reason the Law School is “exiled” across the Midway. And it’s not just the question of real estate at the time. (Although, the University is expanding more in that region, now.)

    And, the politics of the Business School (now the Booth School of Business) razing one of the major dormitory complexes for The College for its buildings. It’s been removed now, but when the Business School (located in Stuart) was adjacent to Harper, the titular building for The College, the Business School gifted the College with a sculpture for the shared courtyard/quadrangle. Officially entitled “Why” it looked more like the B School giving the College “the finger.”

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  35. Kai says:

    The piece reads more like a Macro vs. Micro thing – of course Macroeconomists don’t think Microeconomics is worthy of study. And of course the University of Chicago, who’s whole Macroeconomic school has taken a serious blow from this recent economic collapse, is out for blood.

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  36. ray bans on my face says:

    You didn’t ruin economics; some of your non-economist readers are ruining it and blame is being placed you.

    You have presented some ideas that we economists understand very well, and applied them to controversial topics–all with the intention that your non-economist readers will take a minute and think about them in a way that they are not used to: economically! But it just so happens that the material you have published has attracted criticism from a lot of readers that don’t know much-if anything-about economics, even though they believe they do because they took a few political science, sociology and philosophy courses that somehow endowed them with ALL the knowledge of the world. And while they demonstrate little understanding of economics, they aim their criticism to the entire study of economics, blaming it for all the problems we face, because they don’t think it accounts for anything or can accurately predict anything. This wouldn’t be a problem if they enrolled in an accredited economics program. Perhaps with each copy of Superfreakonomics you could include a textbook from various fields in economics that your non-economist readers clearly don’t know about, such as price theory and microeconomics, labor economics, international economics, macroeconomics, industrial organization, econometrics, cost-benefit analysis, behavior economics, production economics, resource economics, developmental economics or financial economics? After a thumping good read through any of these text books, I guarantee your critics will shut up. I’m joking about this idea of course.

    You didn’t ruin economics, but your non-economist readers will continue to condemn and ruin economics as long they parade around with a copy of Freakonomics (or Superfreakonomics)in their right hand, as if it’s a bachelor’s degree in economics.

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  37. Nick says:

    Economists have no sense of humor. Most Ph.D’s in fact take themselves way too seriously.

    In grad school, I wanted to write a spatial analysis paper on the relationship between crime and proximity to church’s chicken.

    None of my professors thought it was funny and didn’t appreciate the novelty of it.

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  38. Brian says:

    “I don’t want to single Levitt out,” he says. “The ethos of a lot of modern young economists is, ‘I’d rather have it methodologically right than be a dirty question.’”

    I’m confused . . . what’s the value of something that’s NOT methodolocially right?

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  39. Zbicyclist says:

    Don’t worry — they criticized Lysenko, too.

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  40. roystgnr says:

    So the complaint is that economics shouldn’t be looking at small, manageable problems instead of attempting to immediately predict whole business cycles? Heaven forfend! Imagine where we’d be if metaphysics had decided to postpone its investigation of the epicycles in which the angels move the planets, merely to examine how fast an apple might fall from a tree!

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  41. Pete says:

    Steven Landsburg’s Slate columns were why I originally tried an econ course at the University of Rochester and eventually majored in it.

    There must be countless students who have tried economics due to Freakonomics.

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  42. EF says:

    fitzgerald and heckman are narrow-minded here. perhaps it’s true that some economic questions deserve greater attention than others — what a value judgment! — but for every economist “freakonomics” distracts from those holy questions, i’d say it attracts or inspires two other folks to study economics who might not otherwise have done so. the book did that for me, at least (thanks, steve!).

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