Join 3,438 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Geek fight
May 3, 2007 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Freaks and Geeks keeping it real. [TNR login=metafilter pwd=metafilter] In late March, New Republic columnist Noam Scheiber posted an article strongly criticizing, among other things, Chicago Economics Professor Steve Levitt's "cute and clever" approach to the dismal science, now famously known as Freakonomics. Levitt replied last week with a post of his own. And now, Scheiber has appears to want some more of this.
posted by psmealey (40 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
The unspeakable in pursuit of the unbearable.
posted by nasreddin at 10:13 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


I really liked Freakonomics, but I also enjoyed Scheiber's article. It's sort of a shame that Levitt's taken this so personally: what happened to "the only economist who's having any fun"?
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:16 AM on May 3, 2007


This was my favorite part:

He was wearing my Harvard tie. Can you believe it? My Harvard tie. Like oh, sure he went to Harvard.

I agree, anotherpanacea. It's another feature of blogging that otherwise intelligent, accomplished and prominent people can look like complete jackasses when they post in anger. True for all of us, I guess.
posted by psmealey at 10:22 AM on May 3, 2007


My recollection from reading Scheiber's article when it briefly appeared for free was that I sure did have the impression that he did graduate work in economics at Harvard. Now that piece seems to be unavailable again, though, so I can't refresh my memory.
posted by chinston at 10:24 AM on May 3, 2007


It appears that we're going to have to lock these two in a cage and let them slap it out.
posted by The Straightener at 10:31 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Reg free copy of the Schreiber article from the Univ of Chicago News office.
posted by dozo at 10:32 AM on May 3, 2007


I liked "Freakonomics" just fine, but I totally wouldn't mind seeing Steven Levitt getting slapped in the face for thinking that he's G-d's gift to economics.

Get out the pocket protectors and slide rules! It's battle of the nerds! First one to fall down and break his safety goggles loses!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:33 AM on May 3, 2007


If you liked the chapter in Freakonomics on the earning power of low level crack dealers in Chicago I really recommend Off the Books, Sudhir Venkatesh's substantial follow up that captures the gray and black market inner workings of a poor neighborhood in great detail.

Though I think Venkatesh could have benefitted from partnering with a pro-writer like Levitt did; he's got all kinds of great material but my one complaint is that the delivery could have been a little more compelling.
posted by The Straightener at 10:54 AM on May 3, 2007


The occasional very personal reaction (over- or otherwise) is one of the interesting things about these sorts of blogs, as psmealey suggests. I love the Freakonomics blog, and through basically only that lens (and the book) have a very positive impression of Levitt as a funny, laid-back guy, so I'm not inclined to think too badly of him for jerking at Schreiber's article: it happens.

As for Schreiber's article, Steven may well have taken it too personally, but the article itself drips with a sense of dismissiveness toward "cleverness" that's hard not to bridle at a little.
posted by cortex at 10:54 AM on May 3, 2007


1) Where did the author of the story get his economics PhD?
2) How many years was he enrolled in the economics graduate program at Harvard?


This is a meaningless argument from institutional authority. He is asserting that credibility in his field only comes from approved institutions of learning. He is also assuming that we as readers agree with that premise. He moves forward with a nice ad hominem attack by calling his opponent a liar. I quite enjoyed the accusation of Scheiber's lack of journalistic rigor follow immediately by his own lack of it. Irony? I don't get any irony from it, but I certainly get a vibe of dismissive arrogance. (Incidentally, here is a list of Scheiber's articles in The New Republic dating back to to 2001. It took me a few second to type 'Scheiber "The New Repbulic" articles' to get that list as the first hit from Google.)

Respect for academic achievements are slowly eroding into extinction. Good riddance, I say. I have been working several years at a university know as one of the top in the country for its particular field, and here's what I found out: it's meaningless. It is an institutionalized popularity and writing contest. It's as if these folks who probably suffered from social ineptitude at some point in their lives (or continue to suffer from it) are using their intelligence as a substituion for charisma and basic, decent human behavior. Which is fine for them inside their own circles I suppose. However, I personally have little respect for titles, authority, position and supposed academic credibility. The result of your work may be astounding and important, but that doesn't make you a good person or a decent human being, and it damn well doesn't mean that I have to show you any respect until you earn it. If I don't understand how great your work is, then you get to earn your respect from me by being a good person on a general level.
posted by smallerdemon at 11:01 AM on May 3, 2007 [4 favorites]


You're wrong.

No, you are!

No, you!

Etc.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:05 AM on May 3, 2007


Schreiber's article struck me as very pretentious. World Hunger? What, if you aren't solving important problems, then it is just novel? I found the sumo wrestling article to actually be very revealing and a good insight into human nature and society. And even if it wasn't, it was a good pursuit of data and could be instructive. And even if it wasn't that, it could be considered purely for the joy of it.

I bet Schreiber is one of those people who don't understand the value of arts or humanities, either. It's his lot that tends to make me deeply dislike most economists (including the ones I personally know); they have some kind of optimization fetish that makes me want to whack em over the head. No love of life whatsoever.
posted by Bovine Love at 11:06 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


a nice ad hominem attack by calling his opponent a liar

Is that accurate? It seems to me that pointing out that your opponent is lying is a valid argument, as opposed to a plain ad hominem attack (he's wrong because he's stinky). Am I wrong? (I'm not stinky, I just showered).
posted by Bookhouse at 11:08 AM on May 3, 2007


smallerdon: This is a meaningless argument from institutional authority. He is asserting that credibility in his field only comes from approved institutions of learning.

Actually, I don't think he is. He is saying that Schreiber is pretending to have been a Harvard PhD econ student and the article certainly gave me that impression; i.e., Schreiber believes it will give him credibility and leads the reader into believing it. However, on reading the article, I would get that impression but my feeling is that it is accidental and Schreiber assumes you know he didn't (poor writing, but that is another story), particularly has he even refers to himself as a poseur.
posted by Bovine Love at 11:09 AM on May 3, 2007


smallerdemon, Bovine Love is right. After asking these three questions, Levitt says:

If you read the article before trying to answer those questions, I am almost certain you will have gotten one or more of them wrong. In order to give himself some credibility (which he sorely lacks) on the issues in the article, he does everything short of outright lying about his connections to the profession.

He's not criticising Scheiber's lack of credentials, he's criticising Scheiber for being misleading about them.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 11:15 AM on May 3, 2007


Wow. What an insufferable blowhard. Does Freakonomics proper read anything like its eponymous blog? It's so damned smarmy and self-congratulatory that I can barely make it to what passes for content. Let's count how many times he name-drops "Harvard," shall we, for that's clearly the most reliable metric of intellect and quality of ideas. Guh.
posted by Mayor West at 11:17 AM on May 3, 2007


I went to Oxford and the Sorbonne. Harvard was my safety.
posted by psmealey at 11:19 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


metafilter/metafilter doesn't work.

On that note, Bugmenot doesn't seem to be working so much lately. Are sites getting savvy?
posted by gottabefunky at 11:20 AM on May 3, 2007


The New Republican magazine seldom has anything of value, unless you're Liebermann.
posted by nofundy at 11:20 AM on May 3, 2007


Does Freakonomics proper read anything like its eponymous blog?

For the record, the blog doesn't really read anything like that entry. Skim through a couple pages of Levitt and Dubner not involved in a personal snit; this is an outlier.
posted by cortex at 11:21 AM on May 3, 2007


metafilter/metafilter doesn't work.

It works for the current TNR article posted as the first article in the FPP, but not the older article, which I think is only available to TNR paying subscribers. Dozo linked to a mirrored copy of it above.
posted by psmealey at 11:23 AM on May 3, 2007


Mayor West: Let's count how many times he name-drops "Harvard," shall we, for that's clearly the most reliable metric of intellect and quality of ideas.

First, Levitt is at Chicago. He therefore presumably has no incentive to promote Harvard. Second, once you have things like the John Bates Clark medal in your bag (second only to the Economics Nobel), you don't really have to worry about showing off where you went to school.

Third, if you really want to see an economist's blog where 'Harvard' is every second word, look at Greg Mankiw's.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 11:24 AM on May 3, 2007


I think Password/password works
(I honestly don't remember the second and my Firefox has it saved)
posted by Megafly at 11:33 AM on May 3, 2007


Hey, at least he didn't say, "a university in Cambridge, Massachusetts."
posted by The Straightener at 11:35 AM on May 3, 2007


I'm certainly not defending Scheiber, since he also seems to suffer from the same type of warped thought process about what constitutes credibility, and attempts to leverage that to back himself up. These kind of academic pissing matches are just so... well, they're academic pissing matches. Why can't we just see picture of whose penis is larger and get it over with?

Indeed, Scheiber is even deeper in the "we are academics! we are important!" camp than Levitt seems to be. It's great that Levitt is finding his own path to discuss economics, but he's reacting personally and dressing it up like it's not personal.

Re "lying" as ad hominem - It seems to me that pointing out that your opponent is lying is a valid argument... You are correct sir. I withdraw that claim. False statements intended to mislead are indeed lies. (*corrects own ingornace*)
posted by smallerdemon at 11:37 AM on May 3, 2007


password/password does work

is it ad hominem to complain about his concave chest?
posted by criticalbill at 11:42 AM on May 3, 2007


Maybe it's because I read Levitt's post right after finishing Scheiber's article, but I got all three of Levitt's trick questions correct.

I actually found Scheiber's article to be quite good and after reading it I think I have to side with him. The off the wall studies in Freakonomics, like the sumo wrestling/cheating connection, are interesting but it doesn't seem to have the same direct connection as the Lojack/crime study.

I can see the appeal of Levitt's "I'd rather answer a small question correctly than answer a big question incorrectly" point of view but Scheiber made today's economics landscape sound like a generation of filmmakers giving up on serious drama in favor of Michael Bay-style films because the drama is too hard.
posted by crashlanding at 12:22 PM on May 3, 2007


I went to Oxford and the Sorbonne. Harvard was my safety.

Sure, but did you doctor in mathematics?
posted by Chrysostom at 12:35 PM on May 3, 2007


Chrysostom, I actually love you.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 12:50 PM on May 3, 2007


crashlandling: sound like a generation of filmmakers giving up on serious drama in favor of Michael Bay-style films because the drama is too hard.

Or, how about giving up on making epics in favour of small character-driven movies?

Small isn't irrelevant; in fact, it is often more relevant then 'big'. I find the Sumo/cheating connection more interesting; the Lojack/crime nicely helps confirm what many already believed to be true (including me), but didn't tell me anything new. Now proving the obvious is admittedly difficult, but that doesn't make it more useful.
posted by Bovine Love at 2:13 PM on May 3, 2007


I liked the "Tacos ...Great" flameout better.
posted by Dizzy at 2:24 PM on May 3, 2007


Heh, nothing gets any straight laced academician more pissed than insulting his core discipline...

I agree that Levitt's responded from anger with a whole bunch of ad hominem attacks, but still some interesting discussion did come out of this mess: see here and here
posted by stratastar at 3:33 PM on May 3, 2007


I thought Schreiber was a little misleading, with all that business about being an "economics poseur." What the fuck does that mean? Did he hang out in coffeeshops where econ grad students congregated, and pathetically glom onto their conversations?

Really, what does "economics poseur" mean? It's kind of like saying, "genetics poseur." It doesn't really make sense.
posted by jayder at 3:35 PM on May 3, 2007


Bookhouse writes "It seems to me that pointing out that your opponent is lying is a valid argument, as opposed to a plain ad hominem attack (he's wrong because he's stinky). Am I wrong? (I'm not stinky, I just showered)."

Saying that the facts he alleges are untrue is not an ad hominem argument. Saying he's a liar is.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:50 PM on May 3, 2007


Saying that the facts he alleges are untrue is not an ad hominem argument. Saying he's a liar is.

I see what your saying, but Levitt's actual statement is this:

In order to give himself some credibility (which he sorely lacks) on the issues in the article, he does everything short of outright lying about his connections to the profession.

He doesn't say that Scheiber is a liar, he says that, in the original article, Scheiber (nearly) lies. He's clearly characterizing the specific commission—the act—and not Scheiber in general.

Whatever else it is, it's not quite "Noam Scheiber is a liar".
posted by cortex at 4:07 PM on May 3, 2007


cortex writes "He doesn't say that Scheiber is a liar"

Nor did I. I just was trying to clarify what the difference is.
posted by krinklyfig at 6:08 PM on May 3, 2007


Ah, fair enough. I read it more as a rebuttal to an argument against the ad hom charge than as a clarification of the distinction.
posted by cortex at 6:14 PM on May 3, 2007


I'm glad we're in an effective sense, all friends. Note: not saying we're all friends.
posted by fleacircus at 10:44 PM on May 3, 2007


Saying that the facts he alleges are untrue is not an ad hominem argument. Saying he's a liar is.

Saying someone is a liar may be an ad hominem argument, but it's one of the best.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:33 AM on May 4, 2007


>what happened to "the only economist who's having any fun"?

Well, have you ever challanged a nerd? Leavitt's response is the classic 'star wars/star trek nerd' response. Mama's little intellectual simply cannot be criticized! Her special emotionally unbalanced bestseller will have a fit and post it on his blog.

How embarassing for Leavitt. Man, i liked freakanomics but this is terrible. Maybe Steve thinks his book is this groundbreaking tome (cost-benefit for drug dealers is clever, its not a revolution), when really its probably going to be remembered as "If you liked The Secret, You'll love Freakonomics"
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:13 PM on May 4, 2007


« Older I hope STS-117 isn't delayed by this train wreck l...  |  Tim Ferris claims to have gain... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments