Annals of dishonest attacks, Stephen Dubner edition

By Felix Salmon
March 21, 2012

Super Freakonomics came out in 2009, and Ezra Klein was not impressed:

The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one. This is evident from the very first story on the very first page of the book.

Under the heading “putting the freak in economics,” the book lays out its premise: Decisions that appear easy are actually hard. Take, for example, a night of drinking at a friend’s house. At the end of the night, you decide against driving home. This decision, the book says, seems “really, really easy.” As you might have guessed, we’re about to learn that it’s not so easy. At least if you mangle your statistics.

Klein then does a very good job of explaining where and how Super Freakonomics mangles its statistics.

So far so normal: Klein is far from alone in his bashing of the book. Indeed, American Scientist recently ran a column by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung attacking the book’s m.o. And the book’s co-author, Stephen Dubner, has now responded to that column at astonishing and mind-numbing length (7,500 words).

Dubner says at the top of his post that he tends “to not reply to critiques”. But buried further down you’ll find this:

Gelman-Fung write that our argument was “picked apart by bloggers.” Their American Scientist article includes only a cursory bibliography and no footnotes or endnotes, nor do Gelman-Fung cite any specific sources in this case, so it’s unclear who those bloggers were and what they picked apart. From what I can tell, this is the main critique; its author is reputable but he has also written things like this (NSFW!), so he too seems to be in the business of attacking at any cost.

To be clear: Gelman and Fung accused Dubner of some slightly intellectually-dishonest practices. And in his self-defense, Dubner engages in some of the most egregious and blatant intellectual dishonesty I’ve ever seen on a blog.

There are lots of ways that Dubner might have responded to Klein; most of them involve mentioning him by name. Only one of them involves exhuming a drunken and deleted tweet from January 2008. If you look at the URL of the tweet (which is actually a screengrab of the tweet, since, you know, the original was deleted), you can tell that Dubner got there from this post. But Dubner doesn’t link to the post, just to the image of the tweet. Maybe because he knows that if he linked to the post, his readers would find this comment from Ezra Klein:

You’re absolutely correct that this was patently offensive. It was a private text message to friends, an inside joke we have because it’s so over-the-top obscene. It was never, ever meant to be public, and I’m deeply apologetic that it crossed that barrier. It’s not the sort of work I publish as a writer, and not what I seek to contribute to the discourse. The other examples of my writing, those that appear on my site, were meant to be in the sphere, to be argued with, even mocked. But the Twitter was ripped from my private life, and it was never meant to be brought out of the bar-like context in which it was born. Guess those privacy settings are more important than I realized.

In January 2008, Twitter was not the broadcasting platform it is today: it still felt much closer to its roots as a way for groups of friends to communicate with each other via text message. Today, we live in a world where the Freakonomics twitter account has 415,000 followers despite following nobody at all. But when Klein put out the tweet that Dubner’s linking to, the Freakonomics twitter account hadn’t even been created. In no sense at all was Klein “writing” something for public consumption and thereby demonstrating that he is “in the business of attacking at any cost”.

Now it’s possible that Dubner is unaware of Wonkblog, or of Klein’s Bloomberg View column, and therefore is unfamiliar with his actual mode of writing. Possible, but unlikely. What’s impossible is that Dubner believes that Klein’s rapidly-deleted tweet is in any way representative of his work as a whole.

It baffles me why Dubner would engage in a low and dirty and deeply dishonest ad hominem attack on Ezra Klein at all — let alone in the middle of a post in which he’s trying to defend his reputation. The only reason I can possibly think of is that, to coin a phrase, he seems to be in the business of attacking at any cost. Even when the cost paid is that people are sure to take him even less seriously now than they did before.

Update, 3/24: Dubner emails to say that he agrees the link was “unnecessary”, and that he has removed it from the post. In fact, he’s removed not only the link to the screengrab of the tweet, but also the link to Klein’s blog post, with the result that he now pretends to have no idea what the criticisms of his drunk-driving chapter are, even though he linked to them in an earlier version of the post.


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Strange, too, that there is virtually no substantive reference to the blogosphere’s utterly — ahem — non-substantive response to the chapter on global warming.

Posted by boylepoint | Report as abusive

I’m already licking my chops in anticipation of Delong’s response. Brad, do not disappoint!

Posted by boylepoint | Report as abusive

talk about long and mind numbing….Felix, can you give me the elevator pitch here ?
It would be an interesting exercise for some PhD student to count total # words in the original book/# words in blog posts (along these lines, the discussion page for “intelligent design” at wikipedia has gotta be the all time champ for logorrhea (sic)

Posted by ezra567 | Report as abusive

The reason that, “Dubner would engage in a low and dirty and deeply dishonest ad hominem attack,” is because they suffer from “Michael Kinsley Syndrome,” where the need to be counterintuitive trumps everything else.

Posted by Matthew_Saroff | Report as abusive

A UChicago professor posted a serious discussion of the errors in the global warming chapter and included a map showing a route from Levitt’s office to his. Levitt’s reply was, to paraphrase, “we meant to stimulate debate”. That of course is not how it was presented. I’ve asked 3 times about quotes attributed to Levitt in British interviews to the effect that global warming is simple and we should move on to more complicated problems. No response.

The 1st book was Levitt’s work. The 2nd is not his work and it shows. The girl baby chapter is just plan wrong. The global warming chapter is an almost amusing bit of strangeness. The chapters on drinking and age, which Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung have focused on, overstate things and have some errors but they make fairly interesting points.

I’d say the reason for the responses is to protect the brand. It’s a great name and they’ve worked at making it into a brand.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

“It baffles me why Dubner would engage in a low and dirty and deeply dishonest ad hominem attack on Ezra Klein at all …”

Are you, um, familiar with the residuum of Dubner’s work? It can’t be all that baffling….

Posted by AbnerStoltzfuss | Report as abusive

On a related note, I posted a comment on that ranty post by Dubner and it was deleted. The comment linked to your two previous pieces on Freakonomics (from 2005, on and the one here, on Reuters, about the spotted owl. I was making the point that Klein and Gelman weren’t the only ones criticizing with valid points and that I didn’t see him doing much to refute your arguments (or those put forth by Henry Farrell and others)…

My comment was eventually deleted. Which I think says a lot.

Posted by Sprizouse | Report as abusive

The note by Sprizouse about deletion of posts by Freakonomics is important. They do this. They censor. I can say “censor” because they don’t moderate for bad words or abusive attacks but for material that reflects badly in any way on them. That’s just not right.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive