Freakonomics: the intellectual's Glenn Beck?

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The new Freakonomics book is about to come out (called Super Freakonomics, natch), and Marginal Revolution thinks it's great: "a more than worthy sequel, a super sequel you might say." So does Bryan Caplan at econlog: "Overall, it's better than the original." Time Magazine thinks it's "very good — jauntier and more assured than their first".

But not everyone is convinced: negative voices include Ezra Klein, "The Shoddy Statistics of Super Freakonomics", WaPo, 10/16/2009; Matt Yglesias, "Journalistic Malpractice From Leavitt [sic] and Dubner", 10/16/2009; Bradford Plumer, "Does 'Superfreakonomics' Need A Do-Over?", 10/16/2009; Andrew Sullivan, "Not So Super Freak", 10/17/2009.

Ezra Klein sums up the general complaint: "The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one." Specific points of contention include a shaky statistical argument in favor of drunk driving (they claim that it's safer than drunk walking), and an allegedly superficial and misinformed treatment of climate change.

I'll withhold judgment until I've read the book. But based on my experience with one particular story featured several times in Freakonomics columns over the past few years, Ezra Klein's evaluation rings true to me.

A few days ago, the NYT Freakonomics column featured (my Penn colleague) Justin Wolfers defending a study first promoted by Freakonomics in 2007 ("Nickled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich", 10/14/2009).  For my own take on the associated media circus, with an excessive number of additional links, see "The Happiness Gap is back is back is back is back", 9/20/2009. Summing it all up, at the risk of oversimplification, a 2007 academic study by Stevenson & Wolfers argued that

By most objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women's happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to male happiness. […] Our findings raise provocative questions about the contribution of the women's movement to women's welfare and about the legitimacy of using subjective well-being to assess broad social changes.

It's possible to quibble about how meaningful the female-happiness changes are — they're small relative to the yearly noise in the General Social Survey, for example — but I gather that Stevenson and Wolfers'  questions are plausible ones for those who think that economic "utility" ought to translate straightforwardly into "happiness".  However, from the beginning, the mass media presented these "happiness gap" results in a spectacularly misleading way.  And by "mass media" I don't mean Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Rather, the guilty parties have included David Leonhardt, Steven Levitt, Ross Douthat, Maureen Dowd, and Arianna Huffington.

Barbara Ehrenreich accuses Arianna Huffington of reviving the Happiness Gap circus in order to use her site as "a launching pad for a new book by the prolific management consultant Marcus Buckingham", Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, by "[giving] Buckingham a column in which to continue his marketing campaign".

This shouldn't surprise us, it seems to me. Overall, the promotion of interesting stories in preference to accurate ones is always in the immediate economic self-interest of the promoter. It's interesting stories, not accurate ones, that pump up ratings for Beck and Limbaugh.  But it's also interesting stories that bring readers to The Huffington Post and to Maureen Dowd's column, and it's interesting stories that sell copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics.  In this respect, Levitt and Dubner are exactly like Beck and Limbaugh.

We might call this the Pundit's Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner's Dilemma, in which the player's best move always seems to be to take the low road, and in which the aggregate welfare of the community always seems fated to fall. And this isn't just a game for pundits. Scientists face similar choices every day, in deciding whether to over-sell their results, or for that matter to manufacture results for optimal appeal.

In the end, scientists usually over-interpret only a little, and rarely cheat, because the penalties for being caught are extreme.  As a result, in an iterated version of the game, it's generally better to play it fairly straight.  Pundits (and regular journalists) also play an iterated version of this game — but empirical observation suggests that the penalties for many forms of bad behavior are too small and uncertain to have much effect. Certainly, the reputational effects of mere sensationalism and exaggeration seem to be negligible.

[For an interesting take on the history of the freako trend within academic economics itself, see Noam Schieber, "Freaks and Geeks; How Freakonomics is ruining the dismal science" TNR, 4/2/2007.]

[Update — Andrew Gelman, who also hasn't read the book, strikes me as right on the money in this pre-review:

The interesting question to me is why is it that "pissing off liberals" is delightfully transgressive and oh-so-fun, whereas "pissing off conservatives" is boring and earnest? Based on their writings in Freakonomics 1 and their blog, Levitt and Dubner strike me as open-minded political pragmatists, so it's not that I think they have a big political agenda.

It's possible to write things that piss off conservatives while still retaining an edgy, transgressive feeling–take a look at Nate Silver (or, to take a less analytical example, Michael Moore)–but I think it's a little harder to do. Flouting liberal conventional wisdom is funner somehow. As I said, I think there's something more general going on here but I don't feel I have a full picture of this phenomenon.

Freakonomics 1 was based on Levitt's previous research, which was all over the map, whereas in Freakonomics 2 the authors got to choose ahead of time what to be counterintuitive about. […]

If they're not careful, this book will send them from the "popular science" to the "political punditry" category, with no turning back. Perhaps Freakonomics 3 will have a chapter explaining why evolution is just a theory, not actually proven at all?

I guess that it tells us something about the Zeitgeist that there's apparently no space for a left-wing Freakonomist.  And maybe it tells us something about me, that I was taken slightly aback by Andrew's suggestion that Freakonomics had not been "political punditry" all along… (An update from Andrew is here.)]

[Update #2 — Paul Krugman has three posts on the global-warming chapter: "A counterintuitive train wreck"; "Superfreakonomics on climate, part 1"; and "Weitzman in context". His verdict, in three words: "snarky, contrarian games". Or at greater length:

… what it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous. Ann Coulter is making sense! Bush is good for the environment! You get the idea.

Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop.

And here's an in-depth discussion of the scientific and rhetorical issues by Joseph Romm, who is inspired to coin a new acronym:

In olden days, we called such folks Artistes of Bullshit, but now I’m gonna call them F.A.K.E.R.s — Famous “Authorities” whose Knowledge (of climate) is Extremely Rudimentary [Error-riddled?  I'm still working on this acronym].

Another negative review of the climate stuff is here. I'm looking forward to some evaluations of the other chapters.]

[Update #3: Climate Progress on "It takes a village to debunk their anti-scientific nonsense, but why did they stop Amazon from allowing text searches?"; Brian Dupuis, "FAIL: Superfreakonomics", 10/17/2009; Brad Delong, "Six questions for Levitt and Dubner", 10/17/2009;  P. O'Neill, "Freaky Gurls", 10/18/2009 (critique of the prostitution chapter); Gavin Schmidt, "Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong", RealClimate, 10/18/2009.

And Stephen Dubner's response to critics: "Global Warming in SuperFreakonomics: The Anatomy of a Smear", NYT, 19=0/18/2009. He gives a lot of explanations, but doesn't seem to me to address the core criticisms. Brad Delong's (earlier) exchange of emails with Dubner is here. Nate Silver weighs in here.]

[Email from Andrew Gelman: "Things get interesting when a scholar steps over the line and moves into pundit territory.  All of a sudden the scholarly caution disappears.  Search my blog for John Yoo or Greg Mankiw, for example…"

Brad Delong writes "*Sigh* Last Post on Superfreakonomics, I Promise", and concludes with " a little unsolicited advice for Levitt and Dubner. If I were them, I would abjectly apologize".

And Paul Krugman ("Superfreakingmeta") suggests an answer to  Andrew Gelman's question about why pissing off liberals is fun while pissing off conservatives isn't:

Annoying conservatives is dangerous: they take names, hold grudges, and all too often find ways to take people who annoy them down. As a result, the Kewl Kids, as Digby calls them, tread very carefully when people on the right are concerned — and they snub anyone who breaks the unwritten rule and mocks those who must not be offended.

Annoying liberals, on the other hand, feels transgressive but has historically been safe. The rules may be changing (as Dubner and Levitt are in the process of finding out), but it’s been that way for a long time.

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber posted about "How SuperFreakonomics killed contrarianism". The discussion there reminded me of the role of Irwin, the secondary-school history teacher in Alan Bennett's play The History Boys, who teaches his students that in answering examination questions, “the wrong end of the stick is the right one”. In his memoir Untold Stories, Bennett describes his own discovery that the route to an Oxford scholarship was “the alternative journalism of a lowlier sort”, which attracts the interest of graders bored with mere competence by “turning a question on its head”.

Bennett describes his Finals at Oxford as “the last and most significant examination in my life, and it was in this examination that I cheated, just as I had cheated a few years before to get the scholarship that took me to Oxford in the first place.”

“I was not dishonest; I kept to the rules and didn’t crib, and nobody else would have called it cheating, then or now, but it has always seemed so to me. False pretences, anyway.”]


  1. Is it Freakonomics or is it cuteonomics? | FZ Blogs said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    […] – Language Log: Freakonomics: the intellectual's Glenn Beck? […]

  2. Chris said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    I agree that the incentives are weak for scientists themselves to defect, so to speak (i.e., to cheat or lie about their research); however, it seems to me that the incentives for university PR offices are beginning more and more to resemble the incentives for the likes of Beck/Limbaugh. Often, misreported science starts in the provost's office, or some such office where the goal is not to produce the best research possible but rather to do whatever it takes to stimulate the most soft money grants as possible. Am I being too hard on university administrators?

    [(myl) For some discussion of incidents where academic flacks were blame-worthy, see "Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry: a case study", 4/22/2009; and "Study: Hacks often bamboozled by flacks", 5/30/2009. Or in cartoon form, "The Science News Cycle".

    As for the scientists themselves, attempted over-interpretation is pretty common, I think. It's pruned back periodically by reviewers and colleagues, to some extent, but it has deep roots. ]

  3. khephra said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    Cheers for the post! I wasn't much for the first Freakanomics, and it doesn't sound like the sequel would engage me either…

    One minor quibble:

    In the end, scientists usually over-interpret only a little, and rarely cheat, because the penalties for being caught are extreme.

    This I don't agree with. In the end, I'd argue scientists *often* over-interpret, and *often* cheat, because the penalties for cheating are less extreme than the penalties for failing.

    A number of studies have tried to track cheating among scientists, and although the data is merely suggestive, I think it contradicts your stated confidence in the scientific establishment.

    [(myl) Well, we're making a comparison to the mass media here. Compared to (say) Glenn Beck, David Brooks, BBC News, and Stephen Dubner, I'd continue to uphold the position that scientists "usually over-interpret only a little".]

  4. John Cowan said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    Over-interpretation is pruned because it's prunable. Faking data is punished much more heavily because it's much more difficult to detect.

  5. Trimegistus said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    Perhaps it's less fun to be "transgressive" about conservatives because it's the liberals who have all the power now, but are still being whiny when they aren't trying to bully people into silence. Mockery is the only weapon conservatives have.

  6. Sili said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    Deltoid took over where Stoat left off.

    And I think RealClimate has just weighed in as well, but I've yet to read their critique.

  7. The pundits’ dilemma « Economics and Mechanisms said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    […] Liberman says this in the Language Log today, among other good points: Overall, the promotion of interesting stories in preference to accurate […]

  8. The “superfreakonomics” brouhaha continues « CogiDDo ergo sum said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    […] Yglesias, Mark Liberman, Mark Thoma. My elaboration of the last two is in my more scient-y site. It has some thoughts […]

  9. John Cowan said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    The penalties for cheating, at least in the natural sciences, are far worse than the penalties for failing. If you fail, you may not get tenure. If you cheat and are caught, you never work in your field again. Of course, it's harder to prove cheating, so this penalty is less often imposed.

    [(myl) This is absolutely true.

    But it's worth noting that there are many forms of (semi-) cheating other than outright fabrication: cherry-picking data; or doing lots of experiments and reporting only the ones that work; or citing performance (e.g. of discriminant-analysis) on the training data. Because these are sometimes a matter of self-delusion rather than dishonesty — and because in some sub-disciplines it's not even generally recognized that they're problematic — these generally get a pass.]

  10. arc said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    There is a fairly constant 'talking up' that goes on in science, though. A lot of research which is really just pure research undertaken because it's fun and interesting is talked up as being actually about finding cures for cancer or something.

    Then results are also talked-up. Vague indications become experimental successes, experimental successes are given optimistic glosses for possible future cancer treatments, etc.

    This is done to do things like impress administrators and attact interest from funding bodies, and to meet social pressures to seem 'relevant', and no doubt there's also the odd bit of self-delusion that you mention.

    I suppose this fits into your 'over interpret' category, but I think it could be argued that this is a minor form of cheating. No-one is actually lying, or at least, not where it matters (the experimental results might be honest enough, and everyone knows that funding applications are a bunch of lies, right?) but it pollutes the academic environment with obfuscatory disinformation as to the purposes, results, and impact of research.

    Frankly, I've always had strong suspicions that the way research is funded and careers are rewarded create a lot of perverse incentives for researchers.

  11. arc said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

    Like, for example, John Cowan (hi, John, btw – been schemeing lately?) mentions penalties for failing. It's interesting that we have a category of failed experiments, isn't it? The purpose of an experiment presumably is primarily to discover something, and not so much to back-up a preconceived result. But how can an experiment fail to discover something? If you fail to find the correlation you were expecting between personal pronouns and narcissism, then that's still useful information: perhaps personal pronouns don't in fact correlate with narcissism, and that's useful to know. If you fail to produce your target chemical, then that's still useful information too: perhaps it cannot be produced by the route you're attempting.

    Perhaps the experiment doesn't actually establish any facts about the actual target whatsoever (e.g. you can't tell anything about the correlation or lack of it from the experiment) because the methodology is flawed. But even this could be useful if it shows for example that methodology previously thought sound actually has problems.

    An experiment could still genuinely fail due to accident (the lab burnt down) or incompetence (the researcher doesn't have a good grasp of statistics). But I think it's interesting, and also not above criticism, that we tend to priviledge experiments which are 'productive', and tend to cast ones that fail to produce the expected results into the failure bin.

  12. arc said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    um, OK, I failed to clearly connect my last two posts. The connecting thread is that our society prizes 'outcomes', preferably predictable ones. That's what you get kudos, praise, publications, funding, and promotions for, that's what your exemplars are held up as doing. But research is an unpredictable process, and so called 'failed' results still yeild information. So this provides incentives to misreport scientific activity, to talk up results, and to reconstrue 'failure' as success of some kind.

    (It also results in rewarding luck (or at least penalizing bad luck) rather than ability, and in something of a continual reporting fallacy).

  13. Adrian Morgan said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    Linguistic diversion:

    "the player's best move always seems to be to take the low road"

    I don't think I've encountered this use of "the low road" to mean "the morally dubious road" before. Of course, I've encountered that sense of "low", but not in conjunction with "road". At first I interpreted "the low road" to mean the road that can be traversed most unobtrusively, the road that doesn't draw attention to yourself. That was obviously wrong, so I had to read the paragraph again.

  14. seth edenbaum said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    "The interesting question to me is why is it that "pissing off liberals" is delightfully transgressive and oh-so-fun, whereas "pissing off conservatives" is boring and earnest?"

    Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Michael Moore are not boring. Nor do any of them pretend to be objective, they claim to be and are engaged.

    [(myl) FWIW, Paul Krugman explicitly cites this as evidence in favor of his hypothesis:

    The “tell”, I’d suggest, is that once you get beyond those for whom the decision about whom to laugh at is a career move, people don’t, in fact, seem to find mocking liberals funnier than mocking conservatives. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are barreling along, while right-wing attempts to produce counterpart shows have bombed.

    I don't personally find either part of Krugman's answer very convincing. Instead, I think that contrarian academics simply need to violate academic orthodoxies, while comedians are free to poke fun at anyone.]

    Meanwhile MoDo was right about Edwards, as she was in many ways about Gore and Kerry as she was about Hillary Clinton's tears. It amazed me at the time how many people refused to hear HRC's actual words. Read the transcript and ask why she was crying. It was disgusting theater.

    Dowd is good for little more than pop psychology but pop psychology is better than none at all. Call it Pop empiricism. If the Democrats had paid more attention to her native demographic (she is after all a tabloid columnist and from a working class Catholic family) they would have won a few more elections. And Dowd was opposed to the invasion of Iraq before many in the soi disant "Reality Based" community had the sense to be.

    It's not that I'm a great fan of Dowd, or Moore, or even Stewart, but the arrogance of calculating cogitators is annoying. And self-described feminists in 1973 are not synonymous with self-described feminists in 2009. 70's sexual puritanism has morphed into an Anglo-American variant on what was once called difference feminism that is as much a function of a backlash as it is an answer. Not that the new sense of ambiguity is a problem, since the preference for the ideal is dangerous in politics; but it's a fact that gender roles are more confused now than they were 30 years ago, not less.

    The preference for an epistemological naturalism based in the hard sciences is an esthetic choice first and foremost. That's why worried posts like this one and again are so amusing. Why is it that the intellectual liberalism of Rawls and the academy and expert punditocracy pales next to the popular liberalism of Moore and Colbert? And why is it that we finally have such a thing? We owe Rupert Murdoch among others for that, since he was brilliant enough to understand that America wants right wing news and left wing entertainment: the Simpsons paved the way.

    Why does the academy always end up celebrating its own superiority, when what it's represented liberalism not at its most vibrant but at its most self-serving? The fact of the question quoted above makes my point for me. Colbert and Moore are practicing Catholics- believers in mythical mumbo jumbo- but they've both got you dead to rights. How can that be?

    [(myl) You've lost me somewhere along the way here. What positions of mine have Colbert and Moore refuted? And what does their religion have to do with it?]

    I'm an atheist and I know the answer. but you don't. That's your problem, not Colbert's, not Dowd's. You've caught on the the esthetic and philosophical autism of Freakonomics but you've missed the bigger picture. You prefer an interesting story to an accurate one. That is you prefer the story that interests you. The accurate story is much more complex, and at any point every perspective is partial. The world we experience is closer to the one described by Euripides, Shakespeare and Freud than Freaconomics or Plato.

    [(myl) Now you've *really* lost me. I guess that means you win. Or wait, I see you Euripides, Shakespeare and Freud, and raise you Locke, Hume, and Hayek. Or maybe Augustine, Aquinas, and Newton. Not that I have any idea what game we're playing, or who gets to claim which authorities, or why.]

  15. Mark Reed said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    How right-wing are the Freakonomic guys, really? The first book essentially said that abortion is a good thing, after all..

    [(myl) The criticism of them is that their main motivation is selling books, not making political points of any particular sort. Since their audience is (mainly liberal) intellectuals, and their theme is "everything you think you know is wrong", this dictates their position on climate change.

    I'm not sure that this is valid — perhaps they're not really as sophistical as this makes them seem — but there's no question that their "brand" is clever contrarianism. ]

  16. seth edenbaum said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    Now I understand. Its like DeLong, inserting responses in the body of my comment as if I were your student.

    -Moore, Stewart and Colbert are a new phenomenon. You and Krugman are ignoring the fact and effect of historical change.

    -I assume most of these screeds have something to do with the rationalism/irrationalism debate and since religion is structured irrationalism than the evident capacity for reason and unreason in the same person must seem somewhat odd to you.
    Contrarianism is contrary form of idealism. Your response like John Quiggin's I think is to defend something that should not be defended: "conventional wisdom."

  17. arc said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

    Seth, in as far as I can discern what the hell you are going on about in amongst your varied digressions, aphorisms and non sequitors, it seems to me you're reading the criticisms of Freakinomics as being about some kind of cultural war – elite liberal academics defending their turf and their conventional wisdom against new and interesting (and interestingly complex and self-contradictory? rational Catholics?) radicals. Is that a fair summary of your view?

    That could, I suppose, be some kind of sociological discription of what is going on, but it doesn't address the actual charges being laid against the Freakanomics people. The main complaint is that they have bogus arguments supported by poor evidence, misrepresentation, and fallacious reasoning, not that they're popular or irreverent.

    So I'd be interested in knowing what you think of that charge. Sure, Paul Krugman might be an old fuddy-duddy, but is he right (for example) when he says Leavitt and Dubner misrepresent climate scientists? Do you think Krugman is wrong about this, or do you think he is right? If he is right, that suggests that the complaints about L. and D. are to the point, doesn't it? If he is wrong, could you tell us why you think so?

    (Basically, I don't really have any idea what you're on about, but it doesn't appear to be adddressing the points actually made against Freakonomics)

  18. Mark N. said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

    I think he's got to be pretty deluded if he thinks Nate Silver or Michael Moore are clever, edgy contrarians. They're preachers to a choir, which is sort of the opposite; mainly read by liberals, and mainly take liberal viewpoints. An analog to the way Freakanomics, which is mostly read by liberals, pisses of liberals, would have to come from someone mostly read by conservatives, who pisses off conservatives. There probably are some of those, but not being a conservative myself, I don't read them.

  19. The Pundit’s Dilemma said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

    […] Liberman at Language Log says the game theory can explain why pundits "best move always seems to be to take the low […]

  20. seth edenbaum said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:10 am

    I would never defend Freakonimics. I'm happy and grateful for any technically minded debunking. But if competence trumps trickiness, it shouldn't beggar the question: competence at what? I got tired of attacks on Dowd a long time ago. She's been attacked from assumption as much as she's written from it. And mostly she's been attacked for being disrespectful for people who deserve no respect.
    The American "reality based community" create their own reality, and won't admit it. Just ask a European social democrat or a socialist anywhere. American liberals have fond memories or more of Clinton who was to the right of Brian Mulroney.

    Language is drift. You may think you're at anchor and you're not. And I'm tired of arguments from "reason" when so much of American reason (American academic reason as well) is more American than reason. You want a list of documented absurdity I'll give it to you. And I won't even mention economics.

  21. Is it super freaky? « Knowledge Problem said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    […] trade-off factual observations for controversy. Mark Thoma's thoughts, riffing of a post by Mark Liberman on Language Log, were interesting in this regard. Liberman says game theory explains why pundits always take the […]

  22. Chud said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    Krugman reportedly writes: "Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop."

    Same for a Nobel Prize in economics.

  23. bianca steele said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    I saw this post linked to at Crooked Timber and read Mark Thoma's post where he links to it. My browser is filling up with unread tabs but I want to comment on this, which seems to recall something discussed here a while back:

    the player's best move always seems to be to take the low road

    This may be true: however, given the predominance of people one disagrees with most of the time (the law of averages being what it is), it's a safe bet that the next time someone says the above, they will be applying "low road" to what I am doing. At times it's difficult to distinguish "straight and narrow" from "keeping behind the parapet," but for me both of these mean staying away from broad moralizations like the above.

  24. bianca steele said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    Ah, just saw Adrian Morgan's comment above. Anyway, it seems the difference between a pundit and an ordinary person is partly that the former often appears to stand on the parapet shouting where an ordinary person would long ago have found him or herself face down in the moat with an arrow sticking through their back. If this is all the low road is, it's not obvious why it's bad, other than for reasons of decorum. But I think it does also include making the worse argument seem the better, by way of daring to say things most people would not imagine could be said.

  25. On Pundit’s Dilemma « The Progressive Internal Critique said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    […] to the wonk-left's reaction to Super Freakonomics, blogger/U-Penn linguist Mark Libermamn labels the race to the bottom of the barrel by cable news outlets and op-ed writers the […]

  26. Freakonomics: the intellectual’s Glenn Beck? « said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    […] Read more from the original source: Freakonomics: the intellectual's Glenn Beck? […]

  27. Posts about Andrew Sullivan as of October 19, 2009 » The Daily Parr said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

    […] fantasies of indignant patriots: it is questioning the legitimacy of the political order itself. Freakonomics: the intellectual's Glenn Beck? – 10/18/2009 The new Freakonomics book is about to come out (called […]

  28. The Pundit’s Dilemma « RectoNoVerso's Collection said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

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  29. Victor said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

    The first time I heard about Freakonomics I figured it was just contrarianism for the sake of being contrarian. The couple of examples I read seemed to result from very specific choices of the parameters to get the result they wanted.

    That guy who writes for Slate – (wrote for Slate?) – Landsburg, always struck me as having more of an actual political agenda, pushing libertarianism. Luckily, that lets him be contrarian for readership purposes. (Well, that and his constant use of sex, but maybe he just really is a promiscuous spanking fetishist and trying to justify it economically.)

    It certainly seems that in Freakonomics 2, they've gone pretty heavy into the "let's find something people believe and come up with a way to prove it wrong".

  30. outeast said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 7:31 am

    My feeling is that it's more intellectually rewarding to challenge liberal assumptions simply because those tend to be more entrenched in academia, more accepted as received wisdom – there are always plenty of intellectuals ready to debunk rightwing drivel like The Bell Curve, far fewer who will step forward to debunk (say) the assumption that the limited extent of genetic variation between races means that all races are necessarily the same under the skin.

    The irony is that one of the few academic areas in which conservative thought actually predominates is economics, so the Freakonomics chaps aren't really being transgressive within their field. The Stern Report was transgressive economics (and has been widely derided, probably rightly, in economics circles); Freakonomics was just clever marketing, selling basically mainstream economics to a non-economist (liberal) audience.

  31. seth edenbaum said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    The very reasonable claim against Fox is that it operates as a wing of the Republican party, with the unreasonable claim attached being that it should somehow be more objective. But every American news organization operates explicitly and proudly as an operative of our political system. Our newspapers and networks are pro-American, and since when is it objective to prefer one country or one democracy over another?

    Any national press at its best will do no more than act according to a form of high politics, a general and discreet bias. The charges against Fox are not based on anger at the existence of bias but on the belief that it's directed at sowing discord within the American normative system, and against consensus. Fox isn't dividing the US from the world it's dividing the US from itself. That's what bothers people. This should be obvious to a truly disinterested observer, but in the American mythology of nationalism as internationalism and American self-interest as truth, the obvious gets lost.

    Fox and Levitt are -objectively- reactionary in their relation to the American political/cultural norm: they think and act on reflex. You could say as well they're both illogical in their claimed relation to their beliefs, that they're all more interested in notoriety and sales than in their subject matter, but you can't say therefore that those who criticize them are unbiased themselves. The stupidity and corruption of American conservatives is not proof of the honesty of American liberals.

    I wouldn't care much about the disjunction between Brad DeLong's assaults on William Safire, even on his death, and his retrospective gentleness towards the equally vile Jeane Kirkpatrick, but his defense of his courtesy as based in her good intentions rather than his loyalty to family friends was absurd. It's human to be torn by partiality and obligation, but that's just the sense of ambiguity he has no truck for in others, so about himself he simply lies. And he has a long record of such behavior. There's a mountain of examples, just as absurd, just as objectively reactionary and just as normative in American discourse, elite and otherwise. The problem isn't bias, bias is inevitable and others will see it in us before we see it in ourselves, as outsiders see and understand the impact of US foreign policy more than Americans do or ever have. The problem is arrogance and hypocrisy, and American liberals, as Americans -as idealists and optimists- as moralizing defenders of technocracy, have more than their share of both. The worst of elitist liberalism is in easy assumptions of superiority: of pedants attacking con men and the gullibility of the people at large, unable to see when they're conning themselves, and lying when they're caught.

  32. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    It sure would be nice if Seth Edenbaum's idiosyncratic rants on his three or four pet topics were collected in one place, such as his own blog, rather than distributed widely throughout the left blogosphere and (unconvincingly) masquerading as responsive comments. Then they would be much more easily avoided.

  33. FAIL: Superfreakonomics « Left as an Exercise said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    […] Mark Leiberman: Freakonomics: The Intellectual's Glenn Beck? […]

  34. seth edenbaum said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 2:01 am

    "America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right."
    Pat Buchanan wants for America what Joshua Marshall of TPM and every other liberal Zionist wants for Israel: equal but separate.

    To a Palestinian Marshall is the intellectual Glenn Beck and Thomas Friedman is the original. So tell me, how do you "game theory" history and context?

    And Keith I have a blog.

  35. Modeling the Pundit’s Dilemma « Cheap Talk said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    […] 21, 2009 in Uncategorized | Tags: incentives, language | by jeff In a much-discussed post at one of my favorite blogs, Language Log, Mark Liberman christens a new game: We might call this […]

  36. M.G. in Progress - The Unbearable Lightness of Being an economist said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    In the case of Italy we have a Bandit's dilemma.

  37. Superfreakonomics = Supersketchy? « The Forum said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    […] the intellectual's Glenn Beck?" Mark Liberman labels this trend the "Pundit's Dilemma." The media tends to latch on to newsworthy stories, which gives analysts an incentive to hype their […]

  38. Punditerations « Politics and Language said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    […] October 22, 2009 — O. Mark Liberman at The Language Log [] describes something called the Pundit's Dilemma, whereby by pundits Left, Right, and […]

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