Saturday, February 27, 2010

Meta-Freakonomics

Joseph recently wrote a post referring to this post by Andrew Gelman (which was based on a series of posts by Kaiser Fung which check the veracity of various claims in Superfreakonomics -- welcome to the convoluted world of the blogosphere). Joseph uses Dr. Gelman's comments about the poor editing and fact-checking of the book to make a point about the disparity between the contribution editing makes and how little we reward it. He ought to know; I have frequently taken advantage of his good nature in this area, but at the risk of being ungrateful, I don't think the point applies here. Rather than being helpful, the kind of criticism Joseph and Gelman describe could only hurt Superfreakonomics.

Or put another way, if we approach this using the techniques and assumptions of the Freakonomics books, we can show that by foregoing a rigorous internal review process the authors were simply acting rationally.

Before we get to the actual argument, we need to address one more point in Joseph's post. Joseph says that providing critical read "is one of the most helpful things a colleague can do for you, yet one of the least rewarded." This statement is absolutely true for easily 99.9% of the books and manuscripts out there. It is not, however, true for the Freakonomics books. Between their prestige and the deep pockets of William Morrow, Levitt and Dubner could have gotten as many highly-qualified internal reviewers as they wanted, reviewers who would have been compensated with both an acknowledgment and a nice check. (Hell, they might even get to be in the movie.)

But if the cost and difficulty of putting together an all-star team of reviewers for Superfreakonomics would have been negligible, how about the benefits? Consider the example of its highly successful predecessor. Freakonomics was so badly vetted that two sections (including the book's centerpiece on abortion) were debunked almost immediately. The source material for the KKK section was so flawed that even Levitt and Dubner disavowed it.

These flaws could have been caught and addressed in the editing process but how would making those corrections help the authors? Do we have any reason to believe that questionable facts and sloppy reasoning cost Levitt and Dubner significant book sales (the book sold over four million copies)? That they endangered the authors' spot with the New York Times? Reduced in any way the pervasive influence the book holds over the next generation of economists? Where would Levitt and Dubner have benefited from a series of tough internal reviews?

Against these elusive benefits we have a number of not-so-hard-to-find costs. While the time and money required to spot flaws is relatively minor, the effort required to address those flaws can be substantial.

Let's look at some specifics. Kaiser Fung raises a number of questions about the statistics in the "sex" chapter (the one about female longevity is particularly damning) and I'm sure he overlooked some -- not because there was anything wrong with his critique but because finding and interpreting reliable data on a century of sex and prostitution is extraordinarily difficult. It involves measurement covert behavior that can be affected by zoning, police procedures, city politics, shifts in organized crime,and countless other factors. Furthermore these same factors can bias the collection of data in nasty and unpredictable ways.

Even if all of the sex chapter's underlying economics arguments were sound (which they are, as far as I know), there would still have been a very good chance that some reviewer might have pointed out flawed data, discredited studies, or turned up findings from more credible sources that undercut the main hypotheses. That doesn't mean that the chapter couldn't be saved -- a good team of researchers with enough time could probably find solid data to support the arguments (assuming, once again, that they were sound) but the final result would be a chapter that would look about the same to the vast majority of readers and external reviewers -- all cost, no benefit.

Worse yet, think about the section on the relative dangers of drunken driving vs. drunken walking. These cute little counter-intuitive analyses are the signature pieces of Levitt and Dubner (and were associated with Dr. Levitt before he formed the team). They are the foundation of the brand. Unfortunately, counter-intuitive analyses tend to be fragile creatures that don't fare that well under scrutiny (intuition has a pretty good track record).

The analysis of modes of drunken transportation would be one of the more fragile ones. Most competent internal reviewers would have had the same reaction that Ezra Klein had:
You can go on and on in this vein. It's terrifically shoddy statistical work. You'd get dinged for this in a college class. But it's in a book written by a celebrated economist and a leading journalist. Moreover, the topic isn't whether people prefer chocolate or vanilla, but whether people should drive drunk. It is shoddy statistical work, in other words, that allows people to conclude that respected authorities believe it is safer for them to drive home drunk than walk home drunk. It's shoddy statistical work that could literally kill somebody. That makes it more than bad statistics. It makes it irresponsible.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that Levitt and Dubner knew there were mistakes here. Quite the opposite. I'm saying they had a highly saleable manuscript ready to go which contained no errors that they knew of, and that any additional checking of the facts, the analyses or logic in the manuscript could only serve to make the book less saleable, to delay its publication or to put the authors in the ugly position of publishing something they knew to be wrong.

Gelman closes his post with this:
It's the nature of interesting-but-true facts that they're most interesting if true, and even more interesting if they're convincingly true.
Perhaps, but Levitt and Dubner have about four million reasons that say he's wrong.

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