Too Freaky

15 December 2011 at 11:13 am Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

We’ve been somewhat critical on this blog of the Freakonomics approach, but not as critical as Andrew Gelman. Here’s his latest (with Kaiser Fung) in the American Scientist:

On the heels of Freakonomics, the pop-economics or pop-statistics genre has attracted a surge of interest, with more authors adopting an anecdotal, narrative style.

As the authors of statistics-themed books for general audiences, we can attest that Levitt and Dubner’s success is not easily attained. And as teachers of statistics, we recognize the challenge of creating interest in the subject without resorting to clichéd examples such as baseball averages, movie grosses and political polls. The other side of this challenge, though, is presenting ideas in interesting ways without oversimplifying them or misleading readers. We and others have noted a discouraging tendency in the Freakonomics body of work to present speculative or even erroneous claims with an air of certainty. Considering such problems yields useful lessons for those who wish to popularize statistical ideas.

Here’s some additional commentary from Andrew.

My unease with Freakonomics is not its anecdotal, narrative style, but the emphasis on clever puzzles rather than substantive problems, over-reliance on weird instrumental variables, and belief that one can tackle almost any phenomenon with only the barest knowledge of its history and prior literature. Economic theory is indeed quite general and powerful, but not to be thrown around willy-nilly. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, People.

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