Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I finally got around to reading Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics; it's a quick and interesting read with lots of fascinating case studies, although frustratingly inconsistent. I think the main takeaway point is that a lot of "conventional wisdom" floating around out there in the ether is either plain wrong or grossly simplified. To which I say: fair enough.

The weird thing is that Levitt is portrayed as some dis-interested oracle of pure truth, slaying the sacred cows and dispelling common misperceptions. The book makes almost no mention of the fact that many of the ideas Levitt debunks are the product of ongoing social science research, not just the uninformed opinions of pundits and taste-makers. He's clearly a talented and original thinker who has written a number of surprising and influential papers -- but I doubt he's written the final word on such complicated sociological puzzles like the causes of crime or the black-white testing gap. There is also a lack of explanatory power in some of the ideas presented; Freakonomics often seems far better at debunking old ideas than it is in backing up its clever, simplistic alternatives or forging connections between its disparate topics.

The big controversial finding presented in the book is of course Levitt's assertion that the precipitous drop in crime during the early 1990s is best explained by the advent of Roe v. Wade twenty years earlier, and not by any of the dozen more common explanations (the boom economy, gun laws, better policing, etc.). The idea here being that mothers often make decisions about abortion based on their personal and financial ability to raise the child at that time in their life, and apparently that such factors are also strong predictors of 'criminal behavior' in the child. This is the book in a nutshell: bold, clever, unexpected, disturbing ... but true?

It is a somewhat troubling assertion no matter your stance on abortion. But even ignoring for now the merits of the argument it doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the book. Levitt is fundamentally asserting that a child's nurturing environment (or lack thereof) is key in predicting that child's outcome later in life (at least with regards to crime). So it's puzzling that a big chunk of the book is devoted to arguing that parenting style (i.e. reading to your child or taking them to museums or letting them watch TV) has essentially no impact on how well a child does in school. I'm probably missing some obvious unstated argument here, but this seems like a fairly big disconnect to me. Or maybe I'm hoping for a larger theory or organizing principal of human behavior that just isn't there.

Anyway, there's a lot to like in the book -- the chapter on the economics of drug dealing is really cool and their occasional column in the NY Times is also great -- but take it with a grain of salt. Provocative ideas are not always the full story.

Monday, February 19, 2007


Hey- this is my 100th blog post!

More on Global Warming

A few more random thoughts about the recent global warming Congressional hearings and the attendant media coverage.
  • Firstly, our report was mentioned (albeit briefly and not by name) on the Colbert Report -- video can be found here. Seriously, how cool is that?
  • There's a great interview with Dr. Drew Shindell (the NASA scientist who testified before Waxman) where he talks about political interference with his work, the danger of cutting funding for this type of research and global warming science in general.
  • A lot of people get the sense that there has been a sea change on global warming just in the past few months, culminating with this latest round of media coverage on the hearings and the IPCC 4AR report. Prominent skeptics have recanted (although not Sen. James "Hoax" Inhofe), oil companies are unveiling significant voluntary programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (although not Exxon "$10,000" Mobil), and most significantly, the "center" of the debate has shifted. The media seems less likely to frame the very existence of anthropogenic global warming in terms of a "false balance" or a debate between "scientists" and has instead turned to the equally contentious problem of "what to do now."
  • So: what to do now? The interesting policy questions are: what will the Democrats try to pass in this Congress and will President Bush veto it? There are several (bipartisan) options out there, some of which are authored by various presidential contenders. An excellent discussion of the many schools of thought on this can be found here. A lot of people seem to be saying that a serious national plan to address global warming will realistically have to wait for the next president to take office.
  • On the Scientific Integrity front, we'll be pushing for legislation that addresses the rights of government scientists to do their work and communicate their findings free of fear. Wish us luck.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Well said

A co-worker passed on this quote today. It seemed like a fitting epitaph for a funny and inspiring writer - thought I would share.

"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."

-Molly Ivins (1944-2007)