Lott v. Levitt

When I first heard about the defamation suit John Lott launched against Steve Levitt, I wondered if maybe Lott was acting a bit crazy. Now that I’ve read this (courtesy of Tyler Cowen) I wonder if Levitt was perhaps a bit more than injudicious (my take on the article is apparently different from that of the first commenter at Marginal Revolution). I realize there is a sizable gap between “more than injudicious” and “defamation”, but where does this fall? And the debates continue — be sure to see all the comments at Marginal Revolution. It sure looks as if there is considerable animosity between the two economists and between their supporters/champions.

Lott’s lawsuit hangs on two seemingly simple but academically fraught statements: the research was not replicated and the special issue of the journal was not peer refereed. …

In May 2005, an economist in Texas challenged Levitt’s characterization of Lott’s research and pointed out that Lott had guest-edited the October 2001 special issue of The Journal of Law and Economics, published by the University of Chicago Press. As a whole, the ten articles in the journal backed Lott’s conclusions. According to the lawsuit, Levitt e-mailed back: “It was not a peer refereed edition of the Journal. For $15,000 he was able to buy an issue and put in only work that supported him. My best friend was the editor and was outraged the press let Lott do this.” …

Lott contends that “‘replicate’ has an objective and factual meaning in scholarship”—it means that other researchers using the same data in the same way will get the same results. Thus, he says, Levitt’s use of the term amounts to “alleging that Lott falsified his results.” Levitt’s lawyers reply that Freakonomics is written in “everyday language” and is aimed at the general reader.

“Peer refereed” (or “peer reviewed”) refers to the standard practice at scholarly journals of sending a potential article to several other scholars to vet and approve before the work is published. To uphold academic impartiality, the writer does not know the peers’ names. In an e-mail to me, Lott said, “If you were to look at a physical copy of the journal you would see that all of the papers thank anonymous referees for refereeing their papers.” (As for whether he was able to “buy an issue,” Lott says in the suit that he “raised funds for” publishing the special issue.)

The “best friend” editor whom Levitt mentioned in his e-mail was Austan Goolsbee. “I was the lead editor at the time that special issue was printed, but not when it was prepared,” Goolsbee says. The journal collected papers delivered at a conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Law, Economics and Public Policy at Yale Law School.

“In one sense,” Goolsbee says, symposium papers are peer reviewed “in that the articles sometimes go out” for critiquing. “But Steve Levitt is quite right that the standards are infinitely lower on a conference volume. The acceptance rate for papers at The Journal of Law and Economics is something like 8 to 10 percent. This issue had something like ten papers and like most conference articles, none [I believe] were rejected. That’s a one-in-a-billion event that you would get all of those papers in.”

At least two contributors, however, told me that their papers were indeed reviewed. Bruce Benson of Florida State University says he made “significant revisions” in the article he coauthored to address criticism from two referees. “I was surprised when I heard that Levitt made this claim because I actually had guessed that he was one of the anonymous reviewers of my paper. . . . Apparently this was not the case.”

T. Nicolaus Tideman of Virginia Tech, coauthor of another article in the journal, saw his paper at first rejected by a referee, but he rewrote it and then it was accepted. Tideman said the article analyzed Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime data in two different ways and the data held up both times.


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