Monday, May 23, 2005

Freakonomics on Crooked Timber

The crew at Crooked Timber has cooked up something really interesting on Freakonomics. Five of them review it and then give Steve Levitt a chance to respond. They call it--quite appropriately--a seminar. Read the whole thing. For my part, there were two key lessons.

First, Levitt gives an interesting characterization of his research style:

The only things I’m good at, really and honestly, are asking questions that people seem to find interesting, and figuring out how to trick data into answering those questions. I will never be even a passable sociologist, political scientist, or psychologist. But that is okay. I think the thing that gets a lot of economists into trouble is the false belief that they can be good at everything.
That has been true ever since his undergraduate thesis. Later in that paragraph, he continues:

But, by starting from the position that I don’t know much, I am open-minded enough to co-author with an ethnographer (Sudhir Venkatesh), an econometrician (Jack Porter), a political scientist (Tim Groseclose), and now a journalist (Stephen Dubner). And maybe, in addition to making it safe for someone to publish a book without in a theme in the future, I will make it easier for academics from all social sciences to follow the sort of “adisciplinary” (as opposed to inter-disciplinary) path I’m on.
Adisciplinary--I like that.

Second, in one of the commentaries, Henry Farrell refers to my earlier post on Freakonomics:

Andrew Samwick argues that Levitt represents a continuation of this tradition (for Samwick, Levitt is a sort of Becker on steroids).
Good characterization, though I'd be the last to say Levitt is doping. He then adds some insight as to where I came up short, by trying to push my Chicago-School analogy too hard:

Now this is an interesting characterization of Levitt, and as Samwick argues, Levitt is clearly influenced by the earlier generation of the Chicago school. Still, Samwick is wrong in some very important ways. Levitt, unlike Friedman or Becker, seems to be primarily driven by the specific research question and by the data rather than by the desire to see everything through the lens of economics. When the question and the data point in the direction of interactions that can be modeled using optimization and equilibria, this is where Levitt goes. Thus, his work on cheating among Sumo wrestlers, and (my personal favourite, which isn’t mentioned in Freakonomics) on mixed strategies in football penalty kicks. However, much of Levitt’s work on other topics, including what is perhaps his most widely read article (the piece on abortion and crime rates in future generations) appears to have nothing to do with the economic approach, in either Becker’s formulation or Samwick’s slightly pared-down version of same. Neither equilibria nor optimization come into his story. One can go further – Levitt’s work on choice over names for babies supports a set of assertions that go against the economic model as Becker and Samwick describe it.
Fair enough. With the storage and processing capabilities of modern computing, it is now possible to learn quite a bit more from simple (or not-so-simple) data analysis than in generations past. Among social scientists, I think it is fair to say that economists jumped out to an early lead in using those quantitative methods in their research. Much of my own field of public economics (at least as it is practiced in the U.S.) is now entirely data driven. That doesn't necessarily make it uninteresting--it just means that one can be a leading economist while relying less on core economic theory than in an earlier era. So, perhaps in a reflection of his times, Levitt can also be an economist (albeit an adisciplinary one) who can occasionally take a break from testing a theory of incentives and just ask interesting questions of data.

We should also bear in mind that it may be a bit too early to draw firm conclusions: we don't know if Levitt will settle down into a couple of key areas, like Becker or Friedman, or if the next generation of Chicago School economists will resemble the old school any more than Levitt does.

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