Wednesday, July 1, 2015

John Lott's tertiary defense

I've already wasted way too much time following this exchange between Andrew Gelman and John Lott and reading up on the Lott saga. In retrospect, the man isn't that interesting and I doubt you can find an issue I care less about than gun rights/gun control. Nonetheless, I did notice something about Lott's defense and, having wasted the time following all of those links, I might as well get a post out of it.

Lott was responding to a comparison Gelman drew between him and Michael LaCour. I'm not going to go into the details here (that's what the link at the top of the page is for). What caught my attention was what popped when I checked out the sites Lott provided as support.

The first thing you notice is the tone [from supporter James M. Purtilo]:
However our close observation of Wikipedia points to the company’s willing participation in efforts to promote biased material into “fact.” The company’s business relationships give it high page rank in many search engines, so searches on many terms, disputed or not, naturally draw consumers to Wikipedia material. (Google in particular, a growing icon in politically left-leaning circles, gives high priority to Wikipedia entries.) When controversial topics are ‘frozen’ by Wikipedia editors, they are apparently done so in a form most beneficial to the left wing view, without disclaimer warning a well-intentioned researcher that he or she may be incorporating disputed or unsupported material. When journalists accept such material, whether innocently or by knowingly giving faint diligence to an obligation to get ‘outside’ authoritative sources, the quality of material presented on Wikipedia becomes inappropriately boosted in the eyes of the public. The net effect is a ‘bootstrapping’ process, in which the quality of material which tends to serve liberal political needs is artificially inflated and distributed.
But the main thing that struck me was that the links Lott gave all seemed to attack tertiary sources like Wikipedia and a brief item the Washington Post. The WP focus is particularly odd since pretty much all that writer does is describe a Timothy Noah column from Slate. Lott provides hundreds of words on the Post but I can't find anything on Noah. I also couldn't find any references in the piece to Lott's best-known critic, Steven Levitt, which is strange since Levitt definitely left him an opening.

I'm not sure what the strategy here is. Lott's idea may be to keep the charges from spreading, or perhaps he's just not a very effective debater.

By the way, in the social sciences, Lott vs. Levitt is basically...

I really don't know who to root for.

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