August 7, 2007

Bad timing

The New York Times brings Steven D. Levitt's Freakonomics blog on-board as an official NYT feature right at the moment we get to see Levitt's embarrassing "letter of clarification" in settlement of John Lott's defamation case against him!

Will the NYT ever report on this latest story involving their valuable asset? In 2005, the NYT, unlike the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, didn't report on Christopher Foote's and Christopher Goetz's discovery that their columnist's famous abortion-cut-crime theory was based on two errors Levitt had made.

So, probably not. As I wrote in the Washington Times in my review of Lott's anti-Levitt Freedomnomics: "Someone should write Celebrityonomics: Why Being Famous Beats Being Right."

As for defamation lawsuits, the Mahalanobis blog has some interesting reflections:

I have a lot of legal experience recently as a defendant, so in the Levitt vs Lott defamation spat, I found myself sympathetic to the defendant, Levitt. Levitt's admission that he said things to the effect that Lott was manipulating his results, and just plain dumb, I figured was his rightful opinion. Heck, if we are to make it illegal to have bad opinions, we would all be in jail. ... People have to learn to live with the fact that no one but Kim Jong-Il or Fidel Castro get 100% approval ratings. In sum, that someone thinks you are dumb or corrupt is so common it is hardly worth a legal remedy.

I had read the one sentence from Freakonomics that Lott found offensive, and was unmoved, as was the judge. But I just read the email that Levitt wrote to John McCall, where he asserts in a private e-mail that Lott's work published in a volume of the Journal of Law and Economics was a puff piece, bought and paid for by Lott or his puppet masters. As Levitt is a powerful person in economics (Editor of the highly respected Journal of Political Economy), whose opinion is therefore important to other people, with power comes responsibility. He is not a politician, so I think he should be free to say whatever he wants in public, no matter how mean or petty. To the extent he slanders or libels someone in public, its good advertising, because no one gets really mad when someone says 2+2=5, they get mad when you make good points.

But private correspondence is more problematic. If behind the scenes a powerful man is slandering someone, there's no accountability, it generates damages, and basically constitutes a conspiracy. This is especially so in this case because Levitt appears to have acted in bad faith, misstating known facts about things like whether something was refereed, ...

Another reminder that economists, like everyone else, are all too human. I hope Levitt takes this lesson to heart.

Personally, I might favor the law affording people a "one defamation margin of error:" if Levitt had more than once emailed somebody with this kind of thing, it would constitute a pattern. At present, however, all we know is that he did this once. (Another concern about suing over private emails is that a satirical statement not intended seriously might be taken literally, although that doesn't seem to apply here.)

Finally, to add some context, here's a paragraph from an earlier David Glenn article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"A participant in the conference told The Chronicle last year that Mr. Levitt's characterization of the issue as not peer-refereed was an exaggeration but not an outrageous untruth. Other participants, however, insisted that the issue was vigorously peer-reviewed. They said they had the impression that their work would have been rejected if they had not dealt with the reviewers' concerns."

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve, the big story re NYT is that they failed in their bid to sabotage Murdoch's purchase of WSJ. That was a key battle lost. A turning point.

The Leavitt blog timing and the end of the pay-for-premium content experiment and whatever else are just symptoms of chaos, low morale and a floundering ship. Sulzberger family needs to wake up.

The "bad timing" for the NYT is not a day, week, month or year but the entire current era i.e. the internet age, the rise of Murdoch, the nadir of Sulzberger Jr., the 21st century etc.

I despise Murdoch but he is going to maul the NYT and prosecute total war against CNBC. Too bad the forces of political correctness will not be impacted overall one iota.

Someone like Leavitt will probably end up with a regular hosting slot on some weekend show on the upcoming Fox financial channel. The person will be a financial version of FoxNews' Fred Barnes - an "expert" who is demonstrably wrong on key issues with a paper trail of bad bestseller books, but flawlessly PC when it counts, and therefore sitting pretty in a unassailable career position i.e. never having to say your sorry.

Jedster said...


You assert that Levitt based his theory on "two errors."

However he has produced papers showing the same effect with those errors corrected.

Now, I'm not a big fan of his theory, although I think it is probably a contributing element to the overall mosaic.

So I'm not going to defend it.

But you keep on trotting out this notion that his theory 100% dependent on those two errors; that when those errors are corrected, there is no other evidence supporting his theory.

That is patently false. You should stop misleading your readers and you should apologize to Dr. Levitt for mischaracterizing the academic objections to his research.

I for one eagerly await your letter of clarification.

Take care,

Steve Sailer said...

As I pointed out in 2006:

Here's another nail in the coffin of the Freakonomics theory that abortion cut crime: When I pointed out to Steven D. Levitt in 1999 that not only did crime not drop among the first cohort born after the legalization of abortion, but that the age 14-17 homicide rate hit its historic peak in 1993-94, his defense was, in effect, well, okay, but that's only at the national level. If you had run a massive econometric study at the state level, like I did, you'd see my theory is validated.

Last fall, economists Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz finally reran Levitt and Donohue's original state-level analysis and found Levitt had made two fatal technical mistakes. When those flubs were corrected, his entire claimed effect disappeared. (Of course, by then, Freakonomics was the publishing sensation of the year and Levitt had signed deals with ABC and the New York Times, so he cried all the way to the bank.)

Levitt & Donohue's response was to present a new data set, which they claimed validated their original theory.

Now, two economists have analyzed their new data and here's the beginning and the end of their brief paper:

A Comment on Donohue and Levitt's (2006) Reply to Foote and Goetz (2005)

Angela K. Dills Department of Economics, Clemson University
Jeffrey A. Miron Visiting Professor of Economics, Harvard University April, 2006

"Donohue and Levitt (2001) (DLI) consider the hypothesis that U.S. legalization of abortion in the early 1970s caused much of the decline in crime in the 1990s. Foote and Goetz (2006) (FG) show, however, that one key result in DLI contained a coding error; dummies for state-year interactions were inadvertently omitted from the regressions. FG demonstrate that correcting this error, along with estimating the regressions using arrest rates rather than arrest levels, suggests virtually no effect of legalized abortion on crime."

"Donohue and Levitt (2006) (DLII) acknowledge the coding error and agree that correcting the mistake and using arrest rates suggests no effect of legalized abortion on crime. DLII argue, however, that use of an improved abortion measure and an instrumental variable revives or even strengthens their original result..."

"Our conclusion is that the kind of analysis considered in Table VII of DLII does not suggest a quantitatively important effect of legalized abortion on crime. The best case for such an effect is the IV results in columns (6) and (7); these imply that abortion legalization explain 24-25.9% of the 1991-1998 decline in violent crime and 7.1-8.1% of that in property crime. None of these coefficients is statistically significant at conventional levels, however, and the results in column (8) suggest they rely on an implausible mechanism relating abortion to crime. [Full Length PDF]"

Large assertions require large proof, and after seven years, Levitt hasn't come close to meeting the burden of proof.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Steve, for doggedly pursuing this Levitt affair for eight years. You are doing the right thing by cataloging these injustices and reminding readers that truth in mainstream journalism is not alive and well, but instead was the first casualty in the culture war, and as such was toe-tagged a long time ago.

Keep chipping away at all these bestseller author phonies. It has an effect.

Unfortunately, in this specific case, I think the best that we (those who care about accuracy in social science claims) can plan on is that Levitt's reputation suffers greatly through more of his own missteps. Although maybe not to a Gladwellian extent, Levitt seems to be his own worst enemy.

btw that guy Gladwell is an out and out poser. He's a bigger charlatan than that Rich Dad, Poor Dad dude. More amusing blog entries on his zany hijinks, please.

Steve Sailer said...

What is Gladwell up to these days? He hasn't published or blogged anything in 7 months. I suppose he's writing his next superduper bestseller...

Jedster said...


Thanks for the clarification. Might I suggest that when knocking around Levitt in the future you reference this second paper (the response to DLII).

If one only looked at DLII and Foote & Goetz, it's a bit more murky.

Obviously, no need to apologize to Levitt.

Anonymous said...

The "bad timing" will be remembered as the entire Sulzberger Jr. era!

Sulzberger pulling the plug on Times Select:

Pretty good odds that Levitt's blog will get pulled quickly also. Look for wild desperation at NYT in the next year. They will probably hire permanent ratings crater Paula Zahn as a web anchor! Or maybe even Dan Rather!

The Murdoch takeover is lighting a fire under NYT and CNBC. Both are trying out new strategies in order to defend against the coming NewsCorp/DowJones splash.

CNBC is fun to watch these days. They have given a chat show to Michael Eisner apparently. Too bad he doesn't have the cajones to interview the iSteve. Instead Eisner's first interview will be Thomas Friedman - one of the guys primarily responsible for not selling enough Times Select subscriptions!

CNBC also is doing a bunch of new self promotion. One campaign features a bunch of left-leaning CEOs (they exist in surprising numbers) claiming devotion to CNBC. That is how it's going play out. Political allegiances split between the two financial channels similar to the feud between CNN and FoxNews with the same results as in the cable news race.

NYT online should hire iSteve to be the online equivalent of Lou Dobbs at CNN i.e. the controversial star of the lineup.

Anonymous said...


You missed the latest Leavitt tidbit, which is his blog entry, "If you were a terrorist, what would you do?," where he encouraged readers to post ideas on how to harm the country. His idea is for 20 rifle-toting terrorist to start shooting people at the same time in different parts of the country.

Now his idea of discussion these things is not bad for a CIA or FBI spy session, but for a public newspaper?