Does Freakonomics Suck? (Part II)

Several weeks ago, in the interest of full transparency, we posted some negative reviews of our book. The time has come again. It’s not that we are masochists; in fact, positive reviews have regularly been posted on this site as well. Like this one and this one and this one and this one. (The last one goes a bit too far even for us, calling me Aaron to Levitt’s Moses; the funny thing is, Levitt does have a bit of a lisp, and Moses had a stammer — his reason for pressing God to ask Aaron, not him, to lead the stiff-necked Jews out of Egypt … but that’s another story.) So here are a couple of recent reviews that are far less laudatory. The first, by Arnold Kling, is from Tech Central Station and the second, by James Q. Wilson, from Commentary. It’s a very strange experience to have (co-) written a book about which so many intelligent people feel so differently; on balance, however, it’s been hugely entertaining: often gratifying, occasionally maddening, frequently humbling, rarely boring.


Anonymous

Would the reviewers have had their knickers in a twist if you had titled the book "Applied Microeconomic Analysis: Incentives Matter for Human Behaviour"? That entirely descriptive title would have kicked the crap out of sales but might have satisfied some reviewers and those seeking a unifying theme.

Anonymous

Will you be responding to Wilson's critique's? His case seems very convincing.

Anonymous

Why was the crime rate rising before the Roe v. Wade lag? Is there evidence that it was becoming gradually more difficult to have an abortion in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade? Or does Freakonomics not attempt the rise in the crime rate before the "Roe effect"?

seamus

I stopped reading Tech Central Station when they published an article claiming that the US and Europe need to eliminate Social Security and other pension systems, because it makes us have fewer babies, and then Muslims will take over the world.

Arjun

I felt at many times that Freaknomics proposed a society where we discount the value of effort - any effort to solve a societal problem. The book analyzed end results and determined the cause of the said end results. Unfortunately although its great, it doesnt help us make any better decisions because often times its the effort of exploring alternatives and trying different things in good faith (or in ignorance of its relationship to something) that eventually leads to an action that solves the problem.

In the example of crime and its relationship with roe vs. wade, the data is convincing. Unfortunately that is only in retrospect. We cannot use this information to make any judgements about how to go from here on.

Freakonomics allows us to connect the dots looking backwards, but does nothing to help us better connect the dots looking forward. Would this be a correct in the opinion of the authors?

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Anonymous

Rest assured Ronald Reagan probably wouldn't agree with James Q. Wilson's criticism of your book (Wilson is Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University).

Jamie Brockington

Both of the reviewers had a similar underlying theme. They both believe that Freakonomics is too "commercial," so to speak. I think they felt the book was to accomadating for a mass audience and not a "scholarly" publication of sorts.

Mr. Levitt:
If possible I'd like to know where I can see some of your scholarly publications. I would a further background of some of your research to give me a better idea of your findings.

Also, the Commentary review by James Q. Wilson seemed to put an emphasis on race and some of your findings. When I read your book I, too, felt that race was generally ignored in your book (I assume to avoid being politically incorrent). However, I felt there was an assumption, however inadvertant, that an overwhelmingly higher number of abortions were by African-American women.

I'm curious to know why abortion/race and academic achievement/race seem to have been generally ignored in your book. Were you trying to avoid being politically incorrect or from offending minority readers?

I remember a while ago you posted a link about Ronald G. Fryer and his studies (he was mentioned in Wilson's review). If there are plans for a second book (I'm sure there are), I would like to know the possibilities of incorporating some of his research into the next book. I found his research intriguing, and certainly provacative, but would really like to know more.

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Domo

oh yeah... economics should not go into masses. i mean, let's keep people uneducated and exploit the arbitrage opportunities.

qualityg says

SJD,

From a business perspective, it's best to read "customer" feedback; they will give you the real review.

Some professional reviewers are frustrated authors who wish they could write like you and Steven.

qg

Rob

Arjun said...

In the example of crime and its relationship with roe vs. wade, the data is convincing. Unfortunately that is only in retrospect. We cannot use this information to make any judgements about how to go from here on.


Not true. We can use the information gleaned from the retrospect in helping people to understand the consequences of decisions that they have yet to make.

For example, you can strive to make young pregnant women understand just how likely it is that neglect and negativity towards a yet-to-be-born child will likely shape that child's future towards criminal behavior. And maybe, once armed with that information, the mother-to-be will be more likely to make intelligent decisions about how to proceed. Maybe she'll find herself far more inclined towards giving the baby up for adoption as a result.

Anonymous

The point Arjun would that we did not stop crime so we should be able to identify those aspects of the abortion decision which lead to the decrease and also check which factors correlate to the cirsumstance which leads to incarceration. Not having the child is only one method to obtain this outcome.

Anonymous

I was taken by a reviewer's comment that the conclusions you draw sometimes in the book are reported with a degree of certainty that the evidence, as presented in Freakonomics, does not seem to support. That is, when the research indicates that "X may be the case," you often write that "It's because of X."

This may be because your entertaining approach of treating may disparate topics prevents the level of detail that might make your assertions of definitive conclusions more reasonable. But I found a number of passages like the following, where my reaction was "probably--but maybe not."

In your discussion of Internet dating sites, you wrote: "more than 4% of the online dates claimed to earn more than $200,000 a year, whereas fewer than 1% of typical Internet users actaully earn that much, suggesting that three of the four big earners were exagerrating." Why would you say it suggests that, anymore than it suggests that online dating services attract users who are, on average, more affluent than the typical Internet user? The facts may eventually demonstrate that one suggestion rather than the other is the correct one, but the initial datum alone does't seem to favor one interpretation over the other.

And I would echo the question regarding whether you will be responding to Wilson's factual challenges to the abortion/crime causation you report.

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Eric Galloway

Concerning the negative reviews: Kling
thinks that this quote, from an interview of James Heckman, may (or may not) be
an attack on Freakonomics:

"In some quarters of our profession, the level of discussion has sunk to the level of a New Yorker article: coffee-table articles about 'cute' topics, papers using 'clever' instruments. The authors of these papers are usually unclear about the economic questions they address, the data used to support their conclusions and the econometrics used to justify their estimates. This is a sad development that I hope is a passing fad."

The interview is from June 2005. Digging around on the Internet a little bit, though, I found a much more favorable assessment of Levitt's work. Here's an excerpt from an older (May 2, 2003) story on Levitt winning the John Bates Clark:

James Heckman, a Nobel-prize winning economist at the University, predicts greater things for Levitt.

"Steve will continue to grow and integrate economics into his work more closely," Heckman said. "That's what is happening. He is a brilliant creative person. The award will allow him to take more chances and speak on a bigger stage."

Freakonomics has certainly led to a 'bigger stage'!

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John

I loved Freakonomics, but I think it has at least one nagging flaw that requires me to give a disclaimer when I recommend it as a read to fellow academics:

It tries to present a particular epistemological approach to social questions as uniquely "economics" and revolutionary, when it's actually just the basic approach shared by a variety of disciplines that all fall under the "social sciences" umbrella.

Go into any political science, sociology, etc. department and you'll find the same approach (or at least should, if following the principles of their discipline) to questioning conventional wisdom by applying rigorous and replicatable research and analysis to suss out important lessons about social questions.

Anonymous

Here's another negative review, and it may be the weirdest one yet. http://www.nplusonemag.com/weakonomics.html

I confess I had to start skimming it rather than reading as the author seems to be a bit of a crackpot. I'll try not to make too much fun - it's enough to note that the author thinks economics can't address why people give gifts to strangers.

Fans of the book can hopefully get a kick out of this truly bizarre review. If you are kind of stupid, a die-hard communist, and a fan of long, rambling texts, you may like it even more.
-------------------------
The Last Angry Young Man
www.angryman.ca

Anonymous

Regarding John's comment: True, economics does ask the same questions as sociology. But the difference is that economics gets better answers. Better answers are replicable, predictable, and consistent, something all sciences ought to subscribe.

Unfortunately, most sociology does not subscribe to replicable models. Case-by-case, sociology is fascinating. But rarely do sociologists sky-is-falling claims pan out the way they claim.

Anonymous

I think this blog already had an entry on how bad the paper by John Lott was on abortion... no need to refute Wilson on the empirical side if he is merely rehashing Lott's arguments.

Anonymous

Brockington, you can find many of Levitt's papers by going here http://www.nber.org/papers/ and searching by last name. Those with a bit of econ training will likely get more out of the papers than those without. But if nothing else, they demonstrate that 1) there is academic rigour beyond what could fit in the book and 2) even an academic paper can be funny.

The Last Angry Young Man
www.angryman.ca

Anonymous

You can also get to Levitt's papers by following the references in the back of the book, duh.

And I don't think the book attempts to portray the method of inquiry as entirely unique -- I think it says the methods are different from most (but not all) economists, although some of the studies explored within the book are unique. Demonizing the book by attaching more to it than that is just sour grapes.

Chris Bateman

Here's another negative review, and it may be the weirdest one yet. http://www.nplusonemag.com/weakonomics.html

I confess I had to start skimming it rather than reading as the author seems to be a bit of a crackpot. I'll try not to make too much fun - it's enough to note that the author thinks economics can't address why people give gifts to strangers.

Fans of the book can hopefully get a kick out of this truly bizarre review. If you are kind of stupid, a die-hard communist, and a fan of long, rambling texts, you may like it even more.


I thought the n+1 review was provocative in a few respects, if perhaps uninformed about the full map of economics. It prompted me to write on my blog my own abstract critique of economics on epistemological grounds, and why I have some problems with Freakonomics. Though I cannot claim to know much economics and glean most of what I know about it from my girlfriend, who is a brilliant economist in training, here are some of my impressions:

For me, the problem is a pretty serious epistemological one about the nature and domain of economics as a discipline. It occupies shifty ground as a science whose subject is human behavior. Although it shares with psychology an empirical method, it's more like mathematics in its underpinnings because it starts with such well-defined axioms and definitions about human behavior, namely all that facile assignation of "agency" and "rationality" to human beings, on which all its empirical explanations rest. Or so it seems to me, who cannot at all claim to know much economics but who am interested in the philosophies of mathematics, of science, etc. I'd be curious to know about any really serious treatments of the philosophy of economics which might address what I'm talking about.

I understand that not all economics works on such narrow premises, and that a lot of really great and innovative work has expanded economists' concepts of costs, benefits, and rationality. But I was also dismayed when I asked Ariel whether she knew of any economics studying decidedly non-capitalist economies such as many of the old Native American ones and those of smaller, isolated, tribal or communal societies, where ideas of agency, costs, and benefits were or are often alien. She said no she had not studied any such work and did not know of any.

How would economics describe these equally functional economies? It is certainly possible that the concepts of costs, benefits, and incentives--concepts proven to have great explanatory power--would rise to the challenge, be adapted and revised, and make sense of these systems without a massive overhaul of all economics. I would like to hear about some work in economics challenging itself to describe systems both existent and potential of social arrangements different from the capitalist one we know so well. It might be enlightening for everyone, and might even help us improve on our own capitalist society.


I'd be curious to hear Steven or other people address my questions.

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