Monday, October 19, 2009

It's Super-Freaky

Super Freakonomics, the sequel to the 2005 best-seller Freakonomics, is getting quite a drubbing in the press and the blogosphere for its shoddy statistical analysis, and it would appear rightfully so (as Matthew Yglesias points out, it's really not that difficult to fact check something as simple as the color of a typical solar panel). As someone who found Freakonomics provocative in spots, but prone to the same sort of logically dubious contrarianism being pointed out in these posts, I'm wondering what took so long. Many of the conclusions Leavitt and Dubner put forth in their first book were, at best, debatable, and I was surprised reviewers and pundits didn't pick them apart more vigorously back then. Better late than never, I suppose - one of the biggest dangers of mistaking science for a body of established facts rather than an ongoing process of inquiry, something to which our culture seems increasingly prone, is the possibility of elevating poorly reasoned and weakly supported supposition to the status of gospel truth just because it's uttered by a respected public figure with a high profile and lots of advanced degrees. This is particularly true of disciplines which have acquired all the authoritative sheen of science without any of the pesky falsifiability, such as economics, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology. Intense intellectual scrutiny ought to be de rigeur for any book making conclusions as sweeping as those presented in Freakonomics, and while I'm skeptical such a standard will ever be met (I doubt very much that the slipshod logic here would have drawn such attention were it employed in making the conventional case in favor of the climate change hypothesis, for instance), it's an ideal worth shooting for.

Along a similar line, this is a reminder that reflexive contrarianism can be just as dangerous to clear thinking as going along with the crowd - on any given issue, the conventional wisdom is the conventional wisdom for a reason, and at least some of the time that reason is a good one. If we are really dedicated to seeking the truth, we ought to be as skeptical of our own intuitions as we are of those of other people.

On a lighter note, the whole thing reminds me of the old joke about economics:
A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are shipwrecked on a desert
island. Starving, they find a case of canned pork and beans on the beach, but
they have no can opener. So, they hold a symposium on how to open the cans. The
physicist goes first:
"I've devised a physical solution. We find a pointed
rock and propel it at the lid of the can at, say, 25 meters per second
The chemist breaks in:
"No, I have a chemical solution: we heat the
molecules of the contents to over 100 degrees Centigrade until the pressure
builds to --"
The economist, condescension dripping from his voice,
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, I have a much more elegant solution.
Assume we have a can opener..."

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