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What I Don't Get About Freakonomics

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Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen have some kind words and some useful thoughts about my just-published piece on how Freakonomics is damaging the economics profession. (My argument, in a nutshell, is that a lot of smart young economists have been seduced by the cult of cleverness, as epitomized by Steve Levitt's work, and, as a result, are no longer answering truly meaningful questions. The piece is in our latest issue; it should be featured on the site tomorrow.)

The gist of Alex's critique, which Tyler more or less endorses, is two-fold. First, Alex argues that I've confused methods and questions, noting that a clever approach does not necessarily imply a useless question; clever economists answer big questions all the time. This is fair enough. And, indeed, I concede the point in my piece, noting that the first generation of economists possessed of Levitt-like cleverness "used their creativity to chip away at important questions."

The point is simply that, if you're wedded to clever methods, you're eventually going to take on some pretty frivolous questions, because there are only so many big questions out there which clever methods can help you answer. At some point, you just run out of them. Conversely, there are many big questions that simply can't be answered using Levitt-like methods, and so you end up excluding them altogether. For example, as one economist put it to me, there's no "natural experiment" (a favorite technique of Levitt's) that allows you to get at why income inequality has increased in the United States in recent decades, since there's no way to simulate a counterfactual U.S. economy without, say, computers. But inequality is something we should study nonetheless.

Alex's second complaint is that I've set up a false-dichotomy. If people stopped writing lightweight papers on cute topics, he says, they wouldn't suddenly start cranking out world-historical papers on important topics. They'd probably just migrate to lightweight papers on boring topics.

There may be something to this, certainly in the profession as a whole. But I tried to restrict my focus to students trained at elite departments, the people who go on to produce much (though by no means all) of the first-tier scholarship in the discipline. And my feeling is that most of the people who earn their PhDs at Harvard, MIT, Chicago, Berkeley, etc. are more than capable of answering big questions, and doing it well. (Levitt often claims he wasn't born with the toolkit to do this kind of work. I don't buy it. He's an obviously brilliant guy.) Taking on big questions is harder than doing clever, and usually takes a lot longer, but it's clearly possible. And if, at the margins, the incentives didn't favor clever, then more people would do it.

--Noam Scheiber

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