It's not often that dry data analysis makes the news. But the new book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, a sequel to their original Freakonomics, has not been well-received. In particular, a chapter that claims "nor does atmospheric CO2 necessarily warm the earth," has drawn criticism from various places - an example here.The authors reply on their blog - Levitt: "the foundation of these attacks is essentially fraudulent"; Dubner: "the debate [is] inspired by...a partisan attack built around a faulty central premise."
The consensus seems to be that Dubner and Levitt stepped into a field they didn't understand with the intention of being contrarians, got the fundamentals wrong, and then lashed out at their critics. Surprised?
As a climate science neophyte but a long-time follower of sports analysis, I'm not. Levitt waded into the "Billy Beane - genius?" debate back in 2005, and wrote the following (among other posts):
"The simple point I was making is that the A’s don’t win for the reasons Moneyball implied, i.e that they put a bunch of misfit looking characters on the field who have out of this world on base percentages which somehow leads them to manufacture runs without paying high salaries. The reason the A’s win, year after year, is because they have better pitchers than anyone else. the 2004 season is typical: the A’s were ninth out of fifteen teams in the American League in scoring runs, but had the second lowest ERA." - Levitt, April 2, 2005
Now this was fundamentally incorrect. Moneyball was written during the 2002 season - its failure to predict the team's characteristics in 2004 is not a failing, nor does Beane's adoption of different tactics in 2004 mean he didn't focus on OBP in the late 1990s. The A's teams from 1999 to 2001, when the market for "misfits" with high OBPs was by no means efficient, were 2nd in the AL in runs scored despite playing in a fairly extreme pitcher's park. (If you've ever been to the Oakland Coliseum, you'll be amazed by the amount of foul territory.) Their pitching was very good in 2001, but just middle-of-the-pack in the other two, especially given their home stadium.
I remember those A's teams and they trotted out a lot of slow, high-OBP sluggers. The 1999 team, in particular, started Matt Stairs, Jason Giambi, Ben Grieve and John Jaha, who combined for 134 home runs, 358 walks and all of nine stolen bases. And the team's pitching staff was so bad, the A's were nearly outscored on the season.
I'm going over old territory here - lots of people pointed out Levitt's mistakes at the time. So what did he write in response? "And for all the talk about me not knowing anything about sabermetrics...I actually do know quite a bit." Or as he later wrote in response to criticism in The New Republic: "Where did the author of the story get his economics PhD?"
Superfreakonomics is more of the same - look for an opportunity to be a contrarian; jump into an issue without understanding it; make fundamental errors; lash out childishly at critics - only this time they picked an issue that actually matters to people and requires more than academic hand-waving to resolve. (No offense, sports fans - Billy Beane's strategies matter to me. I just recognize that they don't matter to the world at large!)
So I think many more people now know what I've known for years. I wonder if it matters - certainly there are many "non-fiction" best-sellers out there that take liberties with the truth, but will Levitt be held to a higher standard because he claims his book is evidence-based?