My Quiet Life My Quiet Life

sociologists get no love

Just a quick rant here. I read this article on the NYT, about economist Steven Levitt. Aside from being one of the NYT’s always slightly odd man-as-god profile articles, it irked me in another way.

Take this, for example:

Levitt and his co-author, John Donohue of Stanford Law School, argued that as much as 50 percent of the huge drop in crime since the early 1990's can be traced to Roe v. Wade. Their thinking goes like this: the women most likely to seek an abortion -- poor, single, black or teenage mothers -- were the very women whose children, if born, have been shown most likely to become criminals. But since those children weren't born, crime began to decrease during the years they would have entered their criminal prime. In conversation, Levitt reduces the theory to a tidy syllogism: ''Unwantedness leads to high crime; abortion leads to less unwantedness; abortion leads to less crime.''

So, obviously, first of all, that logic is a huge honking fallacy, but to be fair, this article mentions that:

Still, the very topic managed to offend nearly everyone. Conservatives were enraged that abortion could be construed as a crime-fighting tool. Liberals were aghast that poor and black women were singled out. Economists grumbled that Levitt's methodology was not sound. A syllogism, after all, can be a magic trick: All cats die; Socrates died; therefore Socrates was a cat.

But it then continues on its way, deifying Levitt as some sort of messiah to the shady and troubled field of sociology.

On another paper of Levitt’s:

That paper was later disputed -- another graduate student found a serious mathematical mistake in it -- but Levitt's ingenuity was obvious. He began to be acknowledged as a master of the simple, clever solution.

Sure, it was proved to be based on a giant mistake, but it was still ingenious!

The article mentions conservatives and liberals being aghast at his conclusions. That’s fine, but how about the respectable social scientists who spend their entire careers studying this, who have to watch some nerd get famous with his solution because he demonstrated reverse causality and drew a (fallacious) conclusion.

I know that I am harping on a paper (of Levitt’s) that was mostly refuted, anyway. But, the basic tone of the article seems to be “Well, sure he draws a lot of flak from people who know what they’re doing, but he doesn’t play by the rules! He shoots from the hip! Economic models be damned! Math is boring! Social science? What’s that?! This guy tells it like it is!”

Don’t get me wrong, this guy sounds like a smart guy. He sounds like your basic nerd who looks at things from a different perspective. Sometimes, his simplistic solutions are a well-needed breath of fresh air, but it’s obvious that sometimes, they’re an insulting gross oversimplification.

It’s like people are oblivious to the fact that there is a science that studies these sorts of things. It’s called sociology. It’s been around for a long time, now. Crime rates are a little bit more complicated to explain than “they aborted lots of future criminals”. Give me a break. Let’s leave the sociology to the sociologists, okay?