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Vetting SuperFreakonomics--again

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 3, 2010 04:03 PM

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Kaiser Fung, a professional statistician, provides a diary of sorts of his reactions as he makes his way through a chapter of "SuperFreakonomics," the bestselling book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner--the "sex chapter," Fung calls it. The results aren't pretty:

p.20 -- was surprised to learn that women used to have shorter life expectancy than men. I have always thought women live longer. This factoid is used to show that throughout history, "women have had it rougher than men" but "women have finally overtaken men in life expectancy". I'm immediately intrigued by when this overtaking occurred. L&D do not give a date so I googled "female longevity": first hit said "it appears that women have out survived men at least since the 1500s, when the first reliable mortality data were kept."; the most recent hit cited CDC data which showed that U.S. females outlived males since 1900, the first year of reporting. In the Notes, L&D cite an 1980 article in the journal Speculum, published by the Medieval Academy. In any case, the cross-over probably occurred prior to any systematic collection of data so I find this minor section less than convincing.

There are 17 more comments along those lines.

Kung then follows up with a similar tough vetting of the chapter about measuring the relative skill of doctors. (Recall that, last November, the Ideas writer Drake Bennett took a skeptical look at the arguments about climate change in "SuperFreakonomics.")

Kung's posts have inspired at least two other statistician-bloggers to ask: What went wrong with the book? Giving the authors the benefit of the doubt, Andrew Gelman, of Statistical Modeling, proposes that Levitt and Dubner are too quick to accept the clever findings of their acquaintances and colleagues. "Trusting friends and experts makes a lot of sense, I think, but if you're not careful it can lead to some silly mistakes," he writes. One of the authors of Observational Epidemiology thinks that's far too charitable. Peer review, even of the quick-and-dirty kind that Fung provides, would have delayed publication of a sure bestseller, watered down punchy assertions, and perhaps required whole sections to be slashed or reworked, he writes. (Or Levitt and Dubner could have kept the flawed sections while knowing that a paper trail existed documenting the flaws.) As it happens, the book sold a bazillion copies and the authors still have a showcase blog at The New York Times. So what's the upside to thoroughness, again?
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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