Get Your Freakonomics: Advice for the 'Would-Be Pop-Statistics Writer'

Has the pop-statistics nonfiction genre reached a tipping point? One where the need to package statistical studies as amazing counter-intuitive revelations has outpaced the scientific method itself? In Scientific American two statisticians say yes: “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,” write Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung, two fellow statisticians who have dabbled in nonfiction. “Considering such problems yields useful lessons for those who wish to popularize statistical ideas.”

“‘Easy read’ should not mean ‘easy write,'” they conclude. “And it doesn’t even always mean ‘easy read’: Readers should apply the same skepticism to the claims of Freakonomics as they would to the much-derided conventional wisdom.”

Particularly amusing is when Mr. Gelman and Mr. Fung question Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt as a “rogue”:

We find this odd: He received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institue of Technology, holds the title of Alvin H. Baum Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and has served as editor of the mainstream Journal of Political Economy. He is a research fellow with the American Bar Foundation and a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, and has worked as a consultant for Corporate Decisions, Inc. One can be an outsider within such institutions, of course. But much of his economics is mainstream.

So this is how scientists affect snark — so clinical!