Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Freakonomics reviewed

So I am violating my self imposed quota of no more than a post a day.. but for those who have read or heard about Freakonomics, the book by Steve Levitt at the University of Chicago. Ariel Rubinstein, who is at NYU and Tel Aviv University and may be described as game-theorist-in-chief these days, has just sent out a blasto with his rather scathing review the Levitt's book. Worth a read.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I might be violating some self-imposed rule not to have the first comment on two entries in a row, but . . .

I'm getting old enough that I have no time for Ariel Rubinstein's response to Freakonomics as a less than rigorous exploration of economics. The book was a fun read to be sure. As a matter of fact, I didn't even read it, I listened to the audiobook, so that makes me even more of dilettante economist.

Even so, I could see that Levitt has taken an unglamorous, amorphous part of economics and made it gleam. Please note that he had the assistance of a professional writer. The reviewer noted that Levitt was the principal author, a bit of academicism that belies the fact that Levitt's work has been made popular through Stephen Dubner's collaboration.

The reviewer also notes that the book is "light reading," with the implicit assumption that if the book were important it would be hard to understand. I've seen and heard people like that. They're the ones who say, "it's a little bit more complicated than that."

Pardon me for indulging me in a little argumentum ad hominem, but I'm not sure if this reviewer deserves better. Very little, if any, words are spent criticizing Levitt and Dubner's hypotheses or data. His criticism of chapters three and four is creditable, but doesn't shake the foundations of Levitt's arguments.

Mostly the review is just a rhetorical send up of a popular title. I'm afraid that Freakonomics is a little bit more complicated than that.

Now I'm feeling Rubinstein's negative energy. I'd rather be saying something positive. So . . .

I hope Rubinstein seriously considers writing the book he mentions. That he takes as much time and applies as much imagination as Levitt did in his research; that he comes up with some insight into human behavior, and that he takes delight in communicating this to his readers.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 9:55:00 AM  
Blogger EdHeath said...

Yeah, I read the review, and I can’t shake the feeling that I am supposed to understand or feel something that I’m not… Though I am feeling something (irritation). Is it supposed to be serious (criticizing Levitt’s shoddy methods) or funny (complaining about the imperialism of economics)? I don’t think it is quite fair to accuse someone of academic fraud and then also try to share a joke (stop enjoying that book, can’t you see it is somewhat flawed). I have to admit, Freakonomics is a bit light, but like the commenter above, that just means I found it fun to read.

I read Freakonomics a while ago, I don’t remember the thing about architect’s and prostitutes (now I wish I did), but Rubenstein’s riff on mathematicians and economists just seems ugly and mean. My dad started in economics as an undergrad but switched to math and went onto to get a PhD in a pure math field (that and my BA in Poli Sci/Econ makes me an expert, heh). Economists do seem to be able to pull off the notion that they should get paid more than other academics (other than law or business professors) because they might be able to leave academia and become successful businessmen (again, heh). Good for them (bad for English and sociology professors). But there are surely “applied” mathematicians, who do sometimes end up outside academia, even in such places as the NSA. If the applied people can’t get together and make the case for better pay, may they should ask the economists for suggestions, even if the economists are less skilled, less educated and less intelligent.

Finally, Rubenstein sole citations are Feakonomics itself. Even if he intends his accusations in a light tone, some ought to be backed up with data, not just a “you could look it up” spirit.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006 1:34:00 PM  
Blogger Amos_thePokerCat said...

I have not read the book, but I have seen various interviews, and tivoed the co-author on C-Span's weekend BookTV. I am kinda luke-warm to the book. Like most things that get the nod with the popular buzz, it is either something you love, or hate. Metacritic has acollection of various Freakonomics reviews. There are some odd bedfellows of those that love it (WSJ, NYT BookRev, LA Times), or hate it (New Republic, WP).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006 12:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read both the book and the review and in many instances the original papers by Levitt and I don’t like Rubinstein's review:

1. Rubinstein is very sarcastic about the words such as “brilliant”, “clever” used in the book to describe Levitt and his methods. I think Rubinstein is an accomplished academic, but that does not mean other people are any less brilliant.

2. Rubinstein obviously has some issues with Levitt’s math background. Personally, I have been wondering how Levitt survived MIT with his math. I still remember the feeling going out of the stats (Sara Ellison) and IO (Glenn Ellison) exams. But from my reading of Levitt’s papers, he has really clever (sorry to use it again) ways of using stats to make his points. I just wish there were more papers like this: use straightforward statistic tools to explain complex social phenomena. If there is anything the economists should do (rather than repeating/re-discovering what Mathematicians have done decades or even centuries ago), it should be explaining things, or, although criticized by Rubinstein, justifying a viewpoint.

3. Rubinstein’s point about “re-finding” 2 million babies is not valid. In any decent hospital in the US, the SSN is automatically processed when a child is born.

4. Rubinstein was so eager to find problems in a chapter title, that he contradicts himself. In section 4, he first disagrees with Levitt (totally ignoring the other author, Dubner), who claims that “Who cheats, well, just about anyone, if the stakes are right.” Then supports the exact claim by giving his own example: “In the few cases in which I (Rubinstein) conducted experimental research, I myself felt the pressure not to search further at a stage in which the experimental results went in my favor and to check findings seven times when they appeared not to support the assumptions I was sure were correct.” Levitt’s argument is not that economists are any smarter than anyone else, his very point is that economists are not less likely to cheat than your grocer!

I believe this book will turn many kids into economists for the time being, or at least let them know the power of critical thinking. While I’m not sure if the society needs more economists, the second point certainly makes this book invaluable.

One last word about the Rubinstein review, reading this review reminds me reading referee’s report with which everyone in my profession is familiar. I don’t understand why they derive such utility from pancaking those minor points and just ignore the great value underlying the innovative and creative works.

Monday, January 01, 2007 10:39:00 PM  
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