Here is how an entire day can get away from me. While I was motivating myself to shake loose from teh covers I scanned my Google Reader and found Jennifer Imazeki's post on the ASSA panel on teaching with blogs:
... I thought it was a bit odd that the first thing Levitt said was, "I had never thought about using blogs to teach economics until I was asked to be a part of this panel" - on the one hand, I suppose that might be the position many audience members were in (i.e., they were at the session in part to find out more) but on the other hand, it immediately raised the question (at least in my head): then why was he there (other than to draw people in with the big name)? Another thing that seemed a bit odd was when he said that he thought requiring students to read economics blogs is "misguided" because so much of what gets published on blogs is not "right". That is, bloggers often write off the top of their head and so at least some of what they write ends up being incorrect. That could be confusing for students and it would be better to have them read more developed ideas, such as peer-reviewed work. ...
The last thing you want undergraduate students at 98% of the universities in the U.S. to do is hit the peer-reviewed journals in most courses.
Levitt also mentioned that in the course of writing his textbook, he went back through the archives of the Freakonomics blog, expecting to find lots of posts he could use to highlight various concepts. But what he found is that there weren't that many posts that were useful for talking about cost curves or any of the other abstract models that are so common in intermediate micro texts. One might think this would lead to some questioning about the relevance of those models but instead, he seemed to see that as another reason not to have students read blogs; i.e., if blogs aren't really connected to what students are learning in class, students don't need to be reading them. It didn't seem to occur to him that the problem might be with what students are learning in class... (Peter Dorman, who offers a less flattering view of the panel, notes the oddity of this as well).
Intermediate micro is probably the last course in the economics curriculum that could benefit from reading blogs. On the other hand, intermediate macro students could gain a lot from reading the debates between those guys that call each other out over their macro models.
After reading the rest of the post (read all of Jennifer's post [and her ASSA presentation post] if you'd like a nice discussion of the potential contribution of blogs to teaching) I couldn't help but click the "less flattering" link. Peter Dorman at Econospeak:
... There was an amusing moment in which Leavitt, noting the disconnect between the arguments economists make on the web when they discuss current issues and the parade of models in the textbooks, considered the possibility that the textbooks might be irrelevant. That moment lasted no more than ten seconds; he dismissed the heresy and recommended that teachers spend more time on the textbooks and less on the blogs.
I congratulate myself for not getting cranky. I made a comment which was intended to be entirely constructive. One point was that none of the panelists had mentioned Mark Thoma’s Economist’s View, which is an essential aggregator. I considered mentioning that one of the virtues of Mark’s site is that he links to noneconomists that economists ought to be interested in, like Andrew Gelman, the Bayesian statistician, but decided not to in order to spare the feelings of Leavitt.
So, I just had to click "the feelings of Leavitt" link, how could I resist (warning: changing the subject). That took me to an Andrew Gelman piece on the problems with SuperFreakonomics where I followed another link to an American Scientist article by Gelman and Kaiser Fung titled "Freakonomics: What Went Wrong?":
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. ...
In our analysis of the Freakonomics approach, we encountered a range of avoidable mistakes, from back-of-the-envelope analyses gone wrong to unexamined assumptions to an uncritical reliance on the work of Levitt’s friends and colleagues. This turns accessibility on its head: Readers must work to discern which conclusions are fully quantitative, which are somewhat data driven and which are purely speculative. ...
The risks of driving a car: In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner use a back-of-the-envelope calculation to make the contrarian claim that driving drunk is safer than walking drunk, an oversimplified argument that was picked apart by bloggers. The problem with this argument, and others like it, lies in the assumption that the driver and the walker are the same type of person, making the same kinds of choices, except for their choice of transportation. Such all-else-equal thinking is a common statistical fallacy. In fact, driver and walker are likely to differ in many ways other than their mode of travel. What seem like natural calculations are stymied by the impracticality, in real life, of changing one variable while leaving all other variables constant.
Here is my concern about the drunk walking assertion from 2009. And this reminded me that the drunk walking stuff in SuperFreakonomics is still getting positive play at the Freakonomics blog. So, while I enjoyed Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics and the blog, and applaud the authors for its positive effect on the economics profession, I'm nodding my head while reading "What Went Wrong?" and the other Gelman posts from last month and this month. Am I too critical of the Freakonomics guys (mostly SuperFreakonomics)? I guess I must agree with Gelman's disclaimer from 2010:
I’ve been picking on Freakonomics a lot recently, but really this is the result of selection bias: when Freakonomics has material of its usual high quality, I don’t have much to add, and when there’s material of more questionable value, I notice and sometimes comment on it. Those of us who’ve contributed to the burgeoning “what went wrong with Freakonomics 2?” literature are doing so only because we believe its authors could do better, if they were to put in the effort.
And that is how an entire day can get away from me.