Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Can I call myself a Freakonomist?

Crooked Timber has a fun discussion of Freakonomics, which I’ve mentioned previously. Analysis by a bunch of snarky social profs, an economist, and response by the author himself. It’s definitely a useful read for anyone interested in the interaction of economics with other social disciplines.

Clearly I like Freakonomics simply because that’s the reason I’m into economics myself. Cute economic models of everyday behavior that produces counter-intuitive results fascinates me, and anyone who’s played a boardgame with me and analyzed that knows this. That’s caused me to share the snarkiness with the other commentators that Freakonomics is claiming to be a revolutionary new view, when this is what we did all along. Still, I’m pretty accepting to the “look, it’s what we needed to do to sell books and grab new minds” defense.

I feel bad for the other social science disciplines that are constantly slighted by the gaping maw of economics. “Economics” as a field has become hugely unwieldy. What is it about? Macroeconomic policy? The history of markets? Higher mathematics of equilibrium theory? Creating rational choice models for every aspect of human behavior? Each of these things could be a field in themselves – or at least has more in common with other fields (accounting, history, math, sociology) than with eachother. The degree to which Levitt’s work and many of his allies ignores the huge amount of social science research already done – especially when that research already uses rational choice theory – is pretty absurd, and destructive.

Social science has always had a miserable reputation, and I believe that’s mostly due to a lack of predictive power. Medical science is respected because we can use it to cure diseases, but so far the public remains unconvinced whether social sciences are as useful and rigorous. That may not be as true as people think, and any social science is probably as useful as meteorology, but the belief certainly exists. And instead of alleviating this with such a data-driven approach, I think Levitt actually contributes to this. His explanations of economic problems lack almost any predictive power, and in fact his most clever examples are when an incentive was designed - and then failed due to unconsidered incentives.

Update: Ultra-economist blog The Mises Institute has a similar take down, worrying about how much Levitt is just doing statistics and not really economics. Also some other good criticisms, including the only reasonable critique I've heard of the abortion-paper Levitt wrote (although still not entirely solid). Also, Slate (linked from the Freakonomics blog) has an annoying article about a precocious Harvard economist, that really seems to be doing statistics more than anything else (though she's quite a credit to social science in general). This one doesn't even lay claim to Levitt's vague notion of "incentives". Maybe economics is "the dismal science" because it's always trying to claim too much empire.

2 Comments:

At 6:21 PM, Anonymous electron said...

actually, a lot of sociologists/anthropologists are considered useful--by the advertizing industry.

not exactly a glowing recommendation for the field, but basically, that's the commercial applications. Find out what makes people tick and why they do certain things, and then use that to sell them stuff. *

same thing with geology, isn't it? finding out about tectonic plates and how rocks form is all well and good, but most of the paying geology jobs are in oil and coal exploration. (even though we might think that monitoring, say, the san andreas fault is of something near equal importance, i'd bet it sure doesn't pay as well.)

* memorable example: a suit-store hired an anthropologist to sell suits. The store had until then been marketing them the same in the north and south of the country, with an emphasis on covering up men's fat tummies. But the anthropologist found that customers in the south had this habit of actually admiring their pot bellies in the mirrors while trying on suits. so the store changed its approach in the south to telling customers how much the suits complimented and fitted their figures, not how much trimmer it made them look.

note that i heard this story somewhat second hand, so it could be somewhat garbled. but the admiring the tummy bit i'm pretty sure is true.

 
At 6:37 PM, Anonymous little_e- said...

addendum:

I think social science's bad reputation is its own damn fault. Anthropology as a field, for example, could work to make itself more useful adn more accessable to the outside world. Rather it is excessively pedagogical and at times seems boring for the sake of being boring.

with economics, you can have the notion of an introduction to the subject. Having *taken* all of the introductory anthropological material at my school, i don't think there is any such thing for anthro. There are no grand theories, no big models. no rational actors. no communism or invisible hands.

anthropology is largely an idle, pedogogical task enjoyed by well-off scholars who aren't interested in proving their worth to the rest of the world. (which isn't to say that they aren't useful. I think learning about how other people think is almost always useful.)

by the same token, many of hte ways in which anthropology has made itself useful are exploitive or negative. For example, there's the advertizing mentioned above. and then there's anthropology's early history, all full of justifications for colonialism and conquering. so now anthropology's so ashamed of its past that it can hardly do anything except sit and whine about how anthropology exploited/s people and how we can never have an impartial view of people, etc.

on the one hand, that's true, but on the other hand, post-modernism is not a philosophy which gives us anything new. It only tears down old things. and while that was good when it started, it's been bloody 20-30 years. The field needs to start doing things again.

of course, i'm being unfair. there is a lot of good material being done in anthro. the post-modern stuff just bugs me, though.

i don't particularly know what sociology is like. I imagine that it's even worse than anthro as far as being pedagogically dense and impenitrable to people outside the field. At least in anthro you get the occasional interesting pictures.

psychology has various obvious problems which i could bitch about at length, but i won't since i haven't actually studied it. but i do wish psychoanalysis would just *die* and that someone would have been smart enough to cut off the entire MPD movement before it started by pointing out that recovered memories simply cannot be regarded as true. It should not have taken the greed of insurance companies to uncover that scandal.

Political science in my experience is respectable because it actually is trying to apply a scientific methodology to understanding a particular subset of human behavior. But that's probably biased by the fact that it's my field and i go to MIT :P

 

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