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.