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Revenge of the Nerd

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how too many academic economists are doing cute and clever work instead of tackling weighty questions ("Freaks and Geeks," April 2). I placed some of the blame for this on Steve Levitt, the University of Chicago professor and author of Freakonomics. Levitt, I argued, was both a leading practitioner of cute-and-clever and a role model to top young economists. Now Levitt has responded with a blog post so strange and incoherent it is almost hard to believe he wrote it.

It's worth pointing out that I wrote my piece feeling ambivalent about Levitt. For one thing, I'm a fan of his work in general and Freakonomics in particular. His papers are consistently entertaining and his book was engrossing, something I'd be hard-pressed to say about most journalists, much less a first-rate economist. For another thing, based on my limited experience talking with Levitt and people who know him, I didn't find him to be anything other than a total mensch. Finally, having briefly languished in a graduate economics program several years ago, I actually thought the profession needed a little spicing up along the lines of what Levitt had introduced. All of these sentiments were reflected in my piece. My concern was simply that, while one or two Levitts were clearly a good thing, diminishing returns had set in as more and more economists had begun to imitate him. Hardly the kind of claim that should make anyone sputter.

Levitt's most serious charge is that I did "everything short of outright lying" to enhance my credibility. He says I gave readers the impression I had a Ph.D. in economics and that I'd done graduate work at Harvard. These are odd allegations, to say the least, given that I took shots at my own meager credentials throughout the piece. Early on, I described myself as an "economics poseur." I reflected on my "poseur days" hanging out with Harvard grad students, whom I always described in the third person ("the Harvard students," "these people") rather than the first person. I talked about "having escaped the academic track." If Levitt means to point out that I am laughably unqualified as an academic economist, he will get no argument here. Judging from Levitt's confusion on this point, I am apparently laughably unqualified to even out myself as laughably unqualified.

As for the substance of my piece, Levitt's response is twofold. First, he notes that he doesn't just do clever work for its own sake; he also uses his ingenuity to answer serious questions. "[O]ften being clever is the way one cracks an important problem," he says. Again, no argument here. As I write in the piece:

Some of [Levitt's] papers made genuinely important contributions. The Lojack paper helped demonstrate that theft is a fundamentally rational phenomenon and can therefore be discouraged. This insight alone might have justified Levitt's John Bates Clark Medal, a prize awarded every two years to the most outstanding economist under 40.

My quibble is with Levitt's less serious papers--the work he described to me as "haute couture"--which many young economists have started to imitate. Nowhere in his response does Levitt say whether or not he thinks this trend is desirable.

Second, Levitt complains, without elaboration, that I got "all the facts wrong" in my discussion of Emily Oster's paper on "missing women"--that is, the gap between the number of women we should observe in countries like China, India, and Pakistan and the number of women we actually observe. Unfortunately for Oster (and for Levitt, who published the paper as co-editor of the Journal of Political Economy), subsequent work by a Berkeley graduate student and two Taiwanese researchers has more or less overturned her result. If Levitt knows of a way to reconcile Oster's findings with these two seemingly devastating papers, I'd be curious to hear it. (In fact, I sent him an e-mail to this effect before publishing my piece. He never responded.) But simply asserting that Oster is right and her critics are wrong leaves much to be desired as a style of argumentation.

(For example, compare Levitt's nonexistent defense of Oster with his vigorous defense of his own concave-looking chest, which ends with the following flourish: "since [Scheiber] has never seen me in person and certainly not with my shirt off, [this is] something he could not possibly be informed about." For the record, let me emphatically confirm that I have never seen Levitt with his shirt off. Mercifully, that wasn't necessary, as you can pretty much discern the contours of his chest from this video.)

One of the things I found so refreshing about Freakonomics was Levitt's democratic sensibility. He came off as a real populist--critical of experts who use their privileged position to shield themselves from criticism or competition. That's why Levitt's response is so disappointing. His mix of outrage and arrogance--outrage that anyone would take seriously the critique of an uncredentialed journalist, arrogance in invoking his authority rather than defending himself on the merits--is unbecoming of someone who shares these intellectual values. Maybe you don't think Levitt needs a thicker chest (though please consider this picture before making up your mind). But he could clearly use some thicker skin.