Can research be both relevant and fun? April 29, 2007Posted by Johan in Cognition, Economics.
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While most science bloggers were up in arms over Shelley’s successful campaign against Wiley, a bit of controversy has been stirring up over in economics. (I had no idea I was interested in economics, but judging by the amount of blogging that I’ve done on it, I am. Go figure) Noam Scheiber wrote an article in New Republic, subtly titled How Freakonomics is Ruining the Dismal Science. The article has now found its way online, thanks to a blogger who almost certainly is in violation of fair use, unlike the Retrospectacle head honcho.
For those of you who have somehow missed it, Freakonomics is a book that rogue economist Steve Levitt co-wrote with Steve Dubner. Essentially, it’s a collection of pop-science write-ups of studies Levitt has published over the years. This research, concerning unusual topics like the economics of drug-dealing and regression analyses that investigate whether sumo wrestling is rigged, turned out to have quite a bit of mass appeal, as Freakonomics promptly sold in marginally fewer copies than the Bible back in 2005.
Not everyone is so impressed. As the title hints at, Scheiber’s article is a scathing attack on Levitt’s research, with some borderline ad hominem elements. The article’s central thesis is that Levitt’s popular and academic success is part of a larger movement in economics that has had a dangerous influence on impressionable economics grad students. Apparently, they have now abandoned the rigorous and perhaps dull study of the macro-economy in favour of fast and fun studies of unusual topics, Freak-style. Scheiber argues that the consequence of this development is that method has become more important than theory. The studies no longer reveal anything of theoretical significance – instead they are novelties, getting attention not because of what they reveal, but because of how they reveal it. Oh, and along the way we also get to learn that Levitt has a squeaky voice and is a poor lecturer, in a perhaps less well-considered comment towards the end of the article.
Anyone who achieves success on the level of Levitt is bound to have a few scathing critics on the web, but the interesting bit about this particular case is that Levitt has responded to the Scheiber’s criticisms on the Freakonomics blog. Apart from responding to Scheiber’s ad hominems and pointing out a few inaccuracies (apparently, Scheiber does not have a PhD in economics and has never met Levitt, contrary to what his article seems to suggest), Levitt argues rather forcefully that the use of “clever” methods in no way precludes theoretical relevance. He points to a number of hard, real-life issues that his research has tackled (not citing the sumo study, surprisingly), in support of this claim.
In a way, Levitt is absolutely right. Many of the studies in Freakonomics are ones that, to quote the awarding criterion for the IgNobel prize that Levitt is sure to win sooner or later, makes you laugh and then think. For instance, a chapter in the book is dedicated to Levitt’s somewhat controversial notion that the vast drop in violent crime that the US experienced in the 1980’s and 90’s is a direct consequence of Roe vs. Wade, 10-20 years earlier. Levitt conjures up a range of statistics and deductive reasoning to support an argument that goes something like this:
1. If aborted fetuses are unwanted, the babies that were born before 1973 rather than being aborted were unwanted.
2. Unwanted children are at risk for crime and anti-social behaviour.
3. Thus, Roe vs. Wade meant that unwanted children were no longer being born at the same rate following 1973. This results in a drop in crime some 15-20 years later because that’s when the unwanted children would have otherwise started their criminal careers.
The argument is simple enough, but it is also quite original. Most people do have an initial visceral reaction to the notion of somehow equating unborn babies with potential criminals, but once you get past that point the idea is not entirely easy to refute.
To be fair, Scheiber has a point in that Levitt’s research is light on theory – this is something that Levitt himself admits to in Freakonomics. The controversial crime drop theory aside, most of the research in Freakonomics makes a practical point about real life, but cannot be easily fitted into the theoretical framework of economics. A lot of it is really best classified as sociology or political science. Perhaps part of the reason why Levitt seems to bother some economists is that he does this research as a professor of economics, often publishing his results in economics journals.
It’s not dissimilar to the way most empirically-based psychologists react to psychoanalysts, reflexologists, or even Dr Phil – by calling themselves psychologists, they contribute to a definition or a stereotype of psychology that many people in research detest. Much of the ire that both Levitt and Dr Phil receive from their peers is probably caused by the way they “make us look bad.” Neither one would get nearly as much of a reaction if they didn’t insist on calling themselves economist and psychologist, respectively.
Anyway, I wonder if they will be a Freakonomics of psychology. The best-selling psychology researchers, people like Pinker or Damasio, are perhaps better known for their style of writing and insight rather than for the sheer originality or wow-factor of their research. Still, there is some psychology research out there that would fit the bill – for one, Godden and Baddeley’s (1975) study on context dependency of memory comes to mind. In this study, divers encoded and recalled lists either over or under water, which produced a nice crosswise interaction: recall was superior when the encoding and recall context was identical, as can be seen below.
(Apologies for the poor quality)
Another prime example would be the (now numerous) studies that use a person in a gorilla suit to probe inattentional blindness (one example). The idea is to have the participants perform a demanding visual task, while casually letting a gorilla walk by. It is strikingly unusual that the participant reports having even seen the gorilla, when asked afterwards.
However, there is no real Levitt in Psychology, yet. Psychologists win IgNobels all the time, but it’s possible that most are too concerned with their reputation to don the gorilla suit for more than the odd study…
Godden, D., & Baddeley, A.D. (1975). Context-Dependent Memory in Two Natural Environments: On Land and Under Water. British Journal of Psychology, 71, 99-104.