Chicago Magazine on Lott vs Levitt

Via Eli Rabett I find a long article by James L. Meriner in Chicago magazine on the Lott-Levitt lawsuit. There’s some new information on the history of Lott and Levitt such as this:

Just when and how the Lott-Levitt feud started is not clear — neither man would directly comment on the lawsuit for this article. Levitt’s friend Austan Goolsbee, also an economics professor at the U. of C., remembers when Levitt, then a junior fellow at Harvard, visited Chicago in 1994 to present a paper. Lott had just been named a visiting professor. “Even before Steve was on the [academic] job market, John came to the first seminar Steve was giving at Chicago and brought his own slides to the talk and attempted to get up and rebut what Steve was saying during Steve’s own workshop,” Goolsbee says. “I cannot even tell you how unusual that is — I have never heard of anything like that happening.”

Meriner quotes Dan Polsby, dean of George Mason Law School on Lott:

He is one of the most energetic, gifted econometricians of his generation, if not in history.

I beg to differ. Lott can drive a stats package, but he has no deep understanding of what he is doing. For instance, here’s a question I put to him:

X is positively correlated with Y, r=0.7. X is positively correlated with Z, r=0.7. Does it follow that Y is positively correlated with Z?

Lott’s answer:

Yes, of course.

I think that one of the most gifted econometricians in history would have got that one right.

And you don’t have to take my word for it. What do econometricians think? Well, Lott has not been able to get a tenure-track position doing econometrics. In the entire world, there is not one university that has recognised Lott as being a one the most gifted econometricians ever. It seems that the only people impressed by Lott’s skills in the field are those like Polsby, with has no training and has done no research in econometrics.

Meriner quotes Lott’s excuse for using Mary Rosh:

He later wrote on his Web site, “I had originally used my own name in chat rooms but switched after receiving threatening and obnoxious telephone calls from other Internet posters.”

This is not credible. First, he didn’t come up with this excuse till several weeks after he was exposed. Second, Internet posters who disagree with you post their own comments or email you. All the responses to Lott’s postings were polite. Third, he also posted under his own name while he was using Mary Rosh.

And I get a mention (the post he refers to is here):

In continuing online debates over gun issues, Reynolds and Kopel have refused to identify the anonymous source. However, Tim Lambert, a computer scientist in Australia who maintains an anti-Lott blog, has said on his blog that Levitt told him he was nearly certain that Lott was the source.


  1. #1 Pinko Punko
    August 12, 2006

    I love John Lott. He keeps giving and giving.

  2. #2 JB
    August 12, 2006

    Total muscle mass is positively correlated with height.
    Total muscle mass is also positively correlated with exercise.

    Does that mean height is positively correlated with exercise?

    I guess that’s why basketball players are all so tall: because they exercise so much.

  3. #3 QrazyQat
    August 12, 2006

    I know pretty much nothing about statistics — not proud of that, just saying — but even I knew that the answer to the question Tim asked should be “maybe, maybe not”. This means that Lott knows less about the subject than someone who knows practically nothing. So if he’s “one of the most gifted” that must make me extremely gifted. I think not.

  4. #4 Mark Shapiro
    August 12, 2006

    1) Energetic and gifted do not necessarily correlate with good, or unbiased, or fair, or honest.

    2) I have to read an Australian blogger to alert me to pick up a magazine that I left lying on the floor for a must-read article? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

  5. #5 Eli Rabett
    August 12, 2006

    I have a long post up about academic standards and academics who blog. There are implications for everyone of us, including John Lott, and specific issues about sock puppetry which must be dealt with.

  6. #6 wcw
    August 12, 2006

    In re: George Mason, worth noting that it has set itself up as a ‘conservative’ mirror image of everything the US right wing believes (mostly falsely) the academy embodies. That one of its professors would compliment Lott would seem a simple part of his job description.

    FD: not all Mason profs are hacks, but all must be fact-checked a hint more than usual as a result of association with that institution.

  7. #7 Joel Shore
    August 12, 2006

    You can get a good idea of where Dan Polsby stands by looking at his publication list: (and also the webpage on him above that).

    If Lott is a gifted econometrician, I sure as hell would hate to see what an average one was like. Is the definition of an “econometrician” now just a person who cherry-picks data to support his preconceived notions?

  8. #8 Joel Shore
    August 12, 2006

    Along the lines of wcw’s comment, here’s a bit more on George Mason University from sourcewatch:

  9. #9 Ian Gould
    August 13, 2006

    “Eleven months after this exchange, Lott sued Levitt and HarperCollins (but not Dubner) for defamation.”

    I’m surprised that’s even legally possible since Levitt and Dubner are co-authors of Freakonomics – but then Dubner obviously wasn’t involved in the allegedly defamatory e-mail.

  10. #10 John Cross
    August 13, 2006

    Joel: Interesting link. George Mason – say isn’t that where Dr. Wegman makes his home?


  11. #11 Rob
    August 13, 2006

    The real interesting thing about GMU is that its a public university. Usually such big moeny grants tend to go to private univerisities since there is little political oversight there. But given UVa had Fred Singer forever, Virginia isn’t too worried about patrolling for kooks.

  12. #12 Glenn
    August 16, 2006

    Has anyone written about the circumstances of Lott’s departure from the American Enterprise Institute? I wonder what role the lawsuit had in his leaving.

  13. #13 Maria
    August 17, 2006

    One wonders if he’s ever heard of an instrumental variable…

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