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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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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