Levitt Strikes Back

Steven Levitt is one of the most genteel members of the economics profession, so it requires quite some provocation to get him going. But an article in the New Republic by Noam Scheiber suggesting that Levitt is ‘ruining’ economics seems to have done just that.

For what it’s worth, I’m an unabashed Levitt fan. He’s worked on important issues (eg. the economics of crime), made methodological advances (his use of clever instruments has been critical in pushing other researchers to think harder about causality), and through Freakonomics, introduced millions of non-economists to the basic ideas of the profession.

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9 Responses to Levitt Strikes Back

  1. Damien Eldridge says:

    I think Steve Levitt is very unfair in his criticism of Scheiber. When I first read Scheibers article (before I saw your post and read Levitts critique), I did not get the impression that he had a PhD. Nor did I get the impression that he had studied at Harvard. Indeed, the only thing that Levitt added was a possible explanation for how Scheiber had found himself associating with Harvard grad students. I think it is incredibly arrogant and misguided to suggest that because Schieber (and presumably anyone else) does not have a Harvard PhD, they must be of inferior intellect.

    To be quite honest Andrew, I have had reservations about the “freakonomics” style of research for some time now. Part of that is just my general dislike of papers that don’t have an explicit theoretical section of some sort or another. That is just a matter of preference. As a theorist, what interests me is the underlying economic explanation. However, putting that aside, I get the impression that some of the “freakonomics” style of work coming out has almost nothing to do with scarcity. As such it is not economics. Nonetheless, it might qualify as social science. In any event, sometimes the results seem ludicrous. A clever identifaction strategy does not necessarily mean that you will get sensible results. There is always room for debate about whether any particular natural experiment is really a natural experiment. Just look at the debate over Card and Kruegers work on minimum wages.

  2. Yes – Steve did seem to have a pretty thin skin. The points made in the original article were reasonable ones and (from memory) not terribly ungenerous to Levitt.

    Within the frequently tedious body of economics scholarship, these papers stand out as fantastically entertaining. Judging from the dizzying sales of Freakonomics and the thousands of lecture halls across the country now bursting with econ majors, they’ve also been wildly successful at ginning up interest in the discipline. But it does make you worry: What if, somewhere along the road from Angrist to Levitt to Levitt’s growing list of imitators, all the cleverness has crowded out some of the truly deep questions we rely on economists to answer?

    Odd and unfortunate that Levitt didn’t really engage with the discussion that Scheiber started.

    I say all this as a fan of Levitt’s. How could one not be?

  3. Damien Eldridge says:

    To be fair, I should correct one part of my earlier comment. On re-reading Levitts post, he does not say that people are inferior because they do not have a Harvard PhD. Nonetheless, I think Levitt comments are rather unfair on Schreiber. Scheiber never claims to have a PhD. Nor does he claim to have studied at Harvard. The fact that he does not have a PhD should not mean that he is not allowed to criticise Levitt. I should note that before making this point or the points in my earlier comments on this thread, I had read some similar comments on Levitts post.

    Personally, I am not a fan of Freakonomics or this style of reaearch. But that is just my own personal prefeence.

  4. Damien Eldridge says:

    A review of freakonomics by Ariel Rubinstein, am outstanding game theorist, is available online at the following web site:

    http://arielrubinstein.tau.ac.il/papers/freak.pdf .

  5. Joshua Gans says:

    Andrew, aren’t you one of the many ruined by Levitt? He he.

    Actually, I think this type of debate and discussion (especially at the highest level and in the open) is healthy. If it is informal, so be it. There are too many up and coming academics who hear rumours of rifts but don’t get to see what they issues really are. Angrist jumped in, perhaps Heckman should too.

  6. David says:

    I thought it was a great article and I thought it was pretty clear Scheiber was purporting to be a journalist and not an economist. I wonder if what riled Levitt was Scheiber’s gratuitous and mean personal comments about everyone that had nothing to do with the arguments in the article (concave chest?!!). Certainly Levitt questioned Scheiber’s credibility more than the arguments he made about the direction of economics research.

    I really enjoyed Freakonomics and it’s certainly worthwhile (and not merely cute, clever) research but it’s not really about economics is it? Just saying that it’s about people responding to incentives doesn’t make it economics. Psychology is all about people responding to incentives. Pride and Prejudice is all about people responding to incentives. Any history book is about people responding to incentives. Any ecology textbook is about organisms responding to incentives. It really should have been called ‘Freaky empirical social science research’.

  7. CHrisPer says:

    So David, by your recategorising, the rest of us can all p*ss off and leave REAL economists to their models? 😉

    I really appreciate this discussion – as an outsider with an interest in the traps of conventional social opinion! The millions of missing ‘aborted criminals and Dem voters’ hypothesis for example is a real challenge to conventional vision.

    Andrews reference to ‘thinking harder about causality’ is a real inspiration for my own interest in the impacts of gun control legislation, where mechanisms of causation have been almost completely ignored.

  8. Rafe says:

    What is going on here is a debate about pushing economics into a more fertile relationship to sociology and politics – in the direction of classical politicla economy maybe, after a period where the best brains got tied up in mathematics and econometrics and research programs like general equilibrium theory and Keynesian macro.

    It is also about the danger of fads and fashions and losing sight of the big problems (and finding the big problems) and the traps of the academic system where you can’t afford to take on big problems because they take too long to make progress.

    It would be a better debate if Leavitt had addressed the issues.

  9. parkos says:

    Yep, I agree with Rafe, furthermore, I would say that Freakonomics (which I glanced through at a Singapore airport bookstore yesterday, not worth carrying around) is an attempt to invade the space of sociology. The conclusion is pure obvious schlock ie sometimes people from the wrong side of the rails move to the better side and vice versa.
    This is mirrored by contemporary psychiatry which attempts to move into social and socio-economic factors for explanation when the neurochemical formulae miss the mark.
    Mathematics and chemistry are plain and abstract when confronted by an infinitley more varied human tapestry. It’s not a revolution in economic thought or a deflation of economic thought, it is attempt to link it to life’s soap opera and drag the soap down to that level.

    Currently reading:
    German anthropologist/lawyer/doctor Adolph Bastian’s Travel in Burma (1860-62) White Lotus Press. In this and other papers he attempts to cover in more humane detail the ground that Britain and Russia had already covered.

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