Pharyngula

He’s baaaack

People keep telling me I ought to read Freakonomics, but something about it keeps tripping my bogosity detector, and I’ve never gotten around to it. Now I’ve got another reason to avoid it: the Freakonomics blog is hosting a particular silly Q&A with someone who has absolutely no credibility on anything: Scott Adams. It reinforces my bias that the authors don’t exercise much judgment.

Scott Adams is about the last person of whom I’d be interested in asking any questions: he wouldn’t answer anything except to say how much smarter he is than any so-called expert, and any hint of actual content in a reply would be quickly denied as nothing but a joke.

Comments

  1. #1 inkadu
    October 28, 2007

    I remember reading the afterword to one of Scott Adam’s books that he tried this method of changing reality. YOu think of what you want, and every day, you sit down and you write down on a piece of paper that you will that thing 10 times, and then go about your day. Amazingly, a highly successful author with a lot of connections, opportunities, and cash seemed to get what he wanted. Therefore, it worked! He encouraged everybody to do it.

    So much for his “excellent bullshit filter.”

    And, just to be clear that PZ isn’t just a pointy-haired boss with no sense of humor, here’s what Adams on evolution:

    I just think that evolution looks like a blend of science and bullshit, and have predicted for years that it would be revised in scientific terms in my lifetime. It’s a hunch – nothing more.

    Maybe he’s channeling dogbert’s cynical attempt to appeal to the masses?

  2. #2 inkadu
    October 28, 2007

    Here’s my favorite question so far:

    Have you and Guisewite ever talked about doing story that finally brings Dilbert face-to-face with Cathy?

    Aigh!

    It’s hard to get worked up over this. I mean, come on, it’s really hard not to have a soft spot in your heart for the guy who writes Dilbert, even if he is a fool. He’s made me laugh so often it seems weird to attack him too vociferously. But, seriously, who is taking him seriously?

    And, here is my proposal to settle this mano-a-mano: Lets have Gary Larson debate evolution with Scott Adams. That should settle the whole evolution controversy once and for all.

  3. #3 jdw
    October 28, 2007

    He’s made me laugh so often it seems weird to attack him too vociferously. But, seriously, who is taking him seriously?

    I dunno, to me there’s nothing funny about life in cubicle hell. And it’s difficult to read anything by Scott Adams. He just seems to drone on and on without actually saying anything, patting himself on the back as he does so. Almost a kind of mental masturbation.

  4. #4 kec
    October 28, 2007

    I enjoyed Freakonomics, but I am quickly losing respect for the Freakonomics blog, and therefore am starting to wonder about the book. The post that bothered me most was this one:

    http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/08/02/cut-god-some-slack/

  5. #5 Bronze Dog
    October 28, 2007

    I’ve been getting to the point that I suspect Dilbert is ghost-written. Adams’ ramblings on science show no grasp of the logical fallacies the pointy-haired boss makes to our amusement and/or groaning.

  6. #6 Pareto
    October 28, 2007

    Freakonomics is an alright book. It’s all about incentives in a generally interesting way, but personally I’d like more (and make sure you check into their conclusions if you’re going to hold them strongly). Your mileage, obviously, may vary.

    But man, as both an atheist and an economist (economics student, at least), I seem to be universally reviled 🙁

  7. #7 Jack Rawlinson
    October 28, 2007

    I shall never forget the vast sinking feeling I experienced when I read the batshit-crazy final chapter of “The Dilbert Principle”. Here was this (presumably) smart, funny guy who had made me laugh over and over again at the deadly accuracy of his lampooning of business life and… suddenly he’s rambling sheer drivelling madness like the sort of scientifically ignorant and wildly irrational loons I’d previously only come across in the dirtier corners of unmoderated internet chat sites.

    And then he produced “God’s Debris”…

    I still find Dilbert funny. I have to deal with it by treating Scott Adams as two people, though: the funny, witty, observant, “Dilbert” guy, and the barking mad fool who obviously dropped out of all of his science classes at the earliest opportunity. That guy’s just embarrassing.

  8. #8 Chi
    October 28, 2007

    PZ, the Freakonomics guys are pretty good about forcing the hardball questions. The first thing I thought when I saw it was that you should send in a good one. Seriously.

    Send in the most succinct, take-no-prisoners, exposing question, and then his idiocy will be revealed to the world.

  9. #9 PZ Myers
    October 28, 2007

    From what I hear, he gets a large number of his ideas as reader submissions, so maybe there’s one barking mad fool who gets the credit and the money, and a bunch of funny, witty, observant people who help him out by sending him strip ideas.

  10. #10 inkadu
    October 28, 2007

    Send in the most succinct, take-no-prisoners, exposing question, and then his idiocy will be revealed to the world.

    The phrase “pissing in the ocean” comes to mind.

  11. #11 Cairnarvon
    October 28, 2007

    Coincidentally, I bought Freakonomics a few days ago. I forget why, now.

  12. #12 Jolly Bloger
    October 28, 2007

    Freakonomics is usually great. They did a Q&A with the Mythbusters recently, and have said that Penn and Teller will do one as well, so atheists are represented. But they do seem to have a soft spot for faith, and have on a couple of occasions openly mocked Dawkins. You’d think economists would tend to be among the more logical and critical members of academia, but oh well.

  13. #13 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 28, 2007

    You’d think economists would tend to be among the more logical and critical members of academia, but oh well.

    At the risk of pulling a Caledonian: No, why? “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”

  14. #14 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 28, 2007

    You’d think economists would tend to be among the more logical and critical members of academia, but oh well.

    At the risk of pulling a Caledonian: No, why? “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”

  15. #15 Ichthyic
    October 28, 2007

    You’d think economists would tend to be among the more logical and critical members of academia, but oh well.

    I’m curious as to why you think this, considering that certain economists gave us the supply side model, which is really based on little more that rationalizations?

    I personally haven’t discovered any data to support isolating economists as being uniquely subscriptive to logic and reason.

    maybe I’m missing something?

  16. #16 Nemo
    October 28, 2007

    I saw the Freakonomics author interviewed on “The 700 Club”, and he brought up the idea that increased abortion rates after Roe v. Wade led to lower crime rates a few decades later. To my astonishment, Pat Robertson did not attack this. I still haven’t figured that out.

  17. #17 reverted
    October 28, 2007

    “This brings me to atheists. In order to be certain that God doesn’t exist, you have to possess a godlike mental capacity – the ability to be 100% certain.” -Scott Adams

    I am so sick and tired of hearing this BS caricature of atheism. *sigh* (I’m also sick of the “atheists are just angry at God” crap.)

    The next time theists present this idiotic viewpoint, ask them if they can absolutely prove beyond a shadow of a doubt (100%) that God DOES exist. If they have even a fragment of a brain and a glimmering of intellectual honesty (I know; it’s asking a lot), they will say no. Ask them, then, how it is that they can claim to be theists—thereby elucidating the idiocy of placing the “100% proof” demand upon atheists, but not upon themselves (indeed, they, who are making the positive assertion in the first place).

  18. #18 Calton Bolick
    October 28, 2007

    I’m curious as to why you think this, considering that certain economists gave us the supply side model, which is really based on little more that rationalizations?

    You should also consider that actual economists aren’t pushing supply-side models, that it’s considered at about the same level of Intelligent Design is in biology.

  19. #19 Moses
    October 28, 2007

    You’d think economists would tend to be among the more logical and critical members of academia, but oh well.

    Not really. Economics is a “social science” which is, like most of them, fraught with wishful thinking and personal ideologies being espoused through the rationalization and manipulation of data and theory. And, unlike a hard science, this soft, woolly-headed thinking tends to be more difficult to disprove.

  20. #20 Heather
    October 28, 2007

    For some reason, I was thinking Scott Adams was the guy behind the Straight Dope, and I couldn’t figure out why you’d want to avoid him. He seems pretty smart, and give no-BS answers to bizarre questions. Then I realized that’s not Scott Adams at all. While Dilbert is mildly amusing, I don’t think the author is really an expert on much of anything.

    I did like Freakonomics, though. It was entertaining to say the least.

  21. #21 Ichthyic
    October 28, 2007

    (I’m also sick of the “atheists are just angry at God” crap.)

    you just explained why they say that.

    they project god from themselves, so when you get angry at them for being demented fuckwits, they automatically project that you must really be angry at god.

    they simply cannot fathom that your anger is really directed at them, and for good reason.

  22. #22 Ichthyic
    October 28, 2007

    You should also consider that actual economists aren’t pushing supply-side models, that it’s considered at about the same level of Intelligent Design is in biology.

    really?

    I think you might be overstating that case a bit, but I’m anxious to be proven wrong.

    could you point out something online that supports the division as you have stated it?

    I’d like to store that away for future reference.

  23. #23 Rey Fox
    October 28, 2007

    While Dilbert is mildly amusing, I don’t think the author is really an expert on much of anything.

  24. #24 James
    October 28, 2007

    testing…

  25. #25 Andre
    October 28, 2007

    It’s unfortunate that so many people (including PZ) are so worked up over the ramblings of a cartoonist. Especially a cartoonist who enjoys writing deliberately provocative/stupid things because he likes prompting furor in his comments section.

    Adams refers to his blog writing as “philosotainment”, it’s supposed to be funny/silly and perhaps somewhat thought provoking (on average at least). It’s not meant to be taken seriously. Evolution posts are mixed in with many farfetched plans for bringing peace to the middle east and various other theories such as the “boner theory of economics”. I realize that quoted out of context his writing may seem quite galling, but anyone with half a brain who reads his blog semi-regularly realizes that he’s just pulling your leg. Something he readily admits to.

    And yes, writing things to piss off your readers (what Adams refers to as the “dance monkey dance” posts) could be seen as childish. But for me, given how idiotic some blog commentators are, I don’t mind if someone winds them up.

    But Adams is pretty bright not to mention funny and successful. If you’re interested in cartooning, publishing, entrepreneurship, or the entertainment business in general, this q and a will probably be worth reading.

  26. #26 Ompus
    October 28, 2007

    I won’t argue that Scott Adams is anything but a clever bullshit artist. And I am curious why he is being given this platform. But I’m also perplexed when someone derides a book, e.g., “Freakonomics,” while admitting to NEVER READING IT. I might cut PZ slack if he were an economist, but really now… he relies on a bogosity detector in lieu of facts and understanding?

    Let me put it this way… People keep telling me I ought to read the Lancet’s article on Iraqi war deaths. Why bother? Something about it keeps tripping my bogosity detector. Yeah… that works. Works fine.

  27. #27 PZ Myers
    October 28, 2007

    I am not an economist, nor am I strongly interested in economics…I wouldn’t mind reading some, sometime, though. Freakonomics sounds interesting, but I keep getting mixed signals on it, and the latest is this one, where the authors seem to think a well-known net-troll is worth querying on various matters.

    I have not condemned Freakonomics — I can’t, since I haven’t read it — but I can say that nothing has given me the activation energy needed to crack the book and read it, and I’m missing any good reason to dig into it now.

    Maybe it’s the best read in economics ever. I haven’t been given any reason to think so so far, however.

  28. #28 Bart Mitchell
    October 28, 2007

    Shame about Adams doing this. I enjoyed the Freakonomics book. Any book that makes you look at problems from a different angle helps, and these guys find angles I never expected. Like ‘How are Sumo wrestlers and US school teachers alike’. PZ, if you do decide to read it, it makes a great ‘bathroom book’. The chapters all stand alone, and can be read in any order, independent of each other.

  29. #29 Iain Coleman
    October 28, 2007

    You may be interested in Daniel “d-squared” Davies’ series of critical reviews of Freakonomics:
    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3
    Part 4

  30. #31 Mango
    October 28, 2007

    I mostly liked the book. The main idea is good — taking uninteresting data sets and running even less interesting statistical analysis to produce very interesting results.

    There were some execution problems, though. The biggest being that it wasn’t very well written. Also, some of their results were more convincing than others.

    I’ve been reading the blog for a long time now, and it has definitely gone downhill. More so since it was recently absorbed by the New York Times. Stephen Dubner (the writer) wrote most of the articles, most of which were dull. But I hung on for Levitt’s posts which were usually had some interesting ideas. Now they have added even more writers, and the whole thing has turned into little more than an overdone newspaper column with a few tired running themes.

    I still recommend reading the book. Even if you take some of the results with a grain of salt, it’s useful to think about how creativity can be used to draw information out of aggregate data.

  31. #32 Steven Alleyn
    October 28, 2007

    That being said, Levitt’s book is very interesting; he actually manages to correlate the drop in crime rates of the 1990s with Roe vs. Wade and the legalization of abortion. He made a lot of other interesting points and, whether or not he was right about everything is just about irrelevant because it’s very good example of lateral thinking, if nothing else.

  32. #33 Spalanzani
    October 28, 2007

    Heather: “For some reason, I was thinking Scott Adams was the guy behind the Straight Dope”

    The Straight Dope guy’s name is Cecil Adams (though this may very well be an alias), so the mistake is understandable.

  33. #34 Michael G.R.
    October 28, 2007

    Freakonomics is okay, but there are a few other “pop economics” book that are better (and more useful, since they don’t just deal with quirky situations):

    -The Undercover Economist by Harford

    -Naked Economics by Wheelan

    -New Ideas from Dead Economists by Buchholz

  34. #35 Andre
    October 28, 2007

    In response to PZ @26:

    A troll is someone who hijacks threads in other people’s fora, messageboards, etc. or at least tries to. Writing your own blog doesn’t count.

    Plus it’s an awfully large leap in logic to assume that because you’ve read a few stupid paragraphs taken out of context on evolution, everything else written by Adams isn’t worth reading. The Freakonomics Q&As are eclectic and involve a lot of different people from top-notch economists to the founders of Cragslist and Arthur Frommer of the Frommer travel guides. Adams has some serious expertise but it relates to cartooning and the entertainment industry. Probably not of much interest to many evolutionary biologists (or me for that matter) but other people…

    As for Freakonomics, it’s a fun, interesting read though it’s written for a mass audience so it is dumbed down to some degree. However, the work each chapter is based on has been published in some of the top economics journals. Levitt has won the Clark medal given biennially to the best economist under 40. He also co-edits the Journal of Political Economy, in or around the top five most prestigious econ journals. More here: http://www.yaleeconomicreview.com/issues/fall2005/freakonomics.php

  35. #36 efp
    October 28, 2007

    I was very unimpressed with Freakonomics (the book). There was nothing really wrong with it, other than it seemed like anyone who took a basic statistics course could have written it. The fact that this guy is (apparently) considered some great groundbreaking economist shows you just how far economists have their heads up their asses. Holy cow, you can apply statistics to sports??? Who ever thunk it???

  36. #37 Ichthyic
    October 28, 2007

    @pareto.

    meh, that’s a pretty soft overview of the situation, and doesn’t really shed much light on the relevance of supply side thinking in current schools of economics, which is more what i was looking for.

    thanks for trying, though.

    the earlier poster suggested supply side theory had all but been run out of serious schools of economics (comparison to ID), so I specifically was looking to see if this is indeed the case.

    frankly, it would make me happier if it were so, but with so many Reagan fans still heavily entrenched in business and politics, I have my doubts.

  37. #38 Ichthyic
    October 28, 2007

    …btw, AFAICT, Greg is a big supply-side fan himself, having written several recent papers on the subject.

    *shrug*

    not exactly where I would look for a good overview on the subject, frankly.

  38. #39 Peter Thomas
    October 29, 2007

    Ah PZ and the gang are bashing Scott Adams again. Let me see, I read SA’s blog regularly (as well as Pharyngula) so that must make me some kind of freak.

    >> Now I’ve got another reason to avoid it

    Uh oh, now PZ is really pissed!

    >> someone who has absolutely no credibility on anything

    WAP!

    >> Scott Adams is about the last person of whom I’d be interested in asking any questions

    POW!

    Leave the poor cartoonist alone 🙂 And hey, good for you to admit that you haven’t even read Freakonomics and that you have a “bias” against the authors. Figures.

  39. #40 Feshy
    October 29, 2007

    I started reading the Freakonomics blog after hearing a fair bit about the book (but not reading it.) I have found it to be very hit-or-miss, frankly. It is a *great* jumping off point — the author finds a few tantalizing and interesting hooks from time to time that bear looking into. However, all too often those tantalizing ideas don’t pan out when further investigated and the conclusions aren’t supported. If you’ve got the free time to sort that out, and the interest in economics, it’s not a bad read for that reason. If not, well… you’ll just be annoyed every time you find a too-sparse abstract pointing to a conclusion that the data doesn’t back up.

    Oh, and the people interviewed are pretty random. Whether you find that a good thing (variety is entertaining to read sometimes) or a bad thing (the “giving a stage and possible legitimacy to absurd opinions is a bad thing” point of view) is probably a matter of personal preference.

    I haven’t yet read the book, btw — the above applies to the blog only.

  40. #41 Pareto
    October 29, 2007

    Ichthyic,
    It is soft, sure, but I figured it was enough to demonstrate that supply-side is not at all viewed analogously to intelligent design in the profession. There are definitely real supply-side economists who are not…crackpots 🙂 (using “supply-side” here in a completely non-strawman sense. Actually, that’s probably part of the problem; see below: just what is the “supply-side view”?)

    As far as Mankiw goes, he’s intellectually honest (or at least, intellectually honest enough). If you’re looking for one who is ‘untainted by ideology’, whatever it may be, you’ll be looking for a long, long time.

    Ultimately, if you want to find out how supply-side really “fits in” to economics, you’ll have to look around and critically parse through all of the material, precisely because of a lot of people who are not so honest or thoughtful and misunderstand and/or purposely misrepresent the ideas. Because of this distortion, you have to ask the question, “what is supply-side economics?”

    Perhaps you would like something more like this:
    http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2007/04/supplyside_econ.html

  41. #42 Ichthyic
    October 29, 2007

    It is soft, sure, but I figured it was enough to demonstrate that supply-side is not at all viewed analogously to intelligent design in the profession.

    ah, i see, i thought you were trying to support the previous poster’s point.

    If you’re looking for one who is ‘untainted by ideology’, whatever it may be, you’ll be looking for a long, long time.

    sorry to hear it, but not surprising. Happens in most fields of endeavor.

    from the link provided:

    AS one who was present at the creation of “supply-side economics” back in the 1970s, I think it is long past time that the phrase be put to rest. It did its job, creating a new consensus among economists on how to look at the national economy. But today it has become a frequently misleading and meaningless buzzword that gets in the way of good economic policy…

    agreed, let’s substitute “voodoo economics” for it. Trickle down, maybe?

    :p

    however, yes, I can see I am susceptible in this case to perhaps projecting too much of the political usage of economic ideologies onto actual economic theory, such as it is.

    I do still maintain that the results of the “Laffer curve” were far too widely extrapolated within the political realm, if not within various economic depts. themselves. Moreover, it’s still not quite clear to me what remains after the years have whittled away the fluff.

    It’s obviously not the case that the ideas behind it have been entirely rejected (there is some logical basis for part of it – always was), and the links given do provide a bit more clarity, so thanks.

  42. #43 Flex
    October 29, 2007

    After the initial hoop-la about Freakonomics died down, I read the book.

    It’s essentially an exercise in applied statistical correlations. The causal paths they propose sometimes lack the evidence that would convince me of their accuracy, but at the same time I acknowledge that establishing these causal paths to a high degree of confidence is hard, and may be nigh impossible.

    As someone who regularly works with statistics in failure analysis in the automotive industry, I’m familiar with the tools he uses and the limitations of statistical analysis. These limitations are not as clearly identified in the book as they could have been.

    Ultimately, some of the correlations seem to make sense to me, and others are somewhat counter-intuitive, but not enough evidence was presented for me feel comfortable in using the book as a referance in an argument. I keep meaning to go back and read the papers Levitt published in the peer-reviewed journals, but haven’t taken the time to do so yet.

    It’s regretable, in my opinion, that some people have taken Freakonomics as something revolutionary in either statistics or economics. It’s a popularizatin of a tool which has been used for many years. But this tool is not widely known to the general public. It’s just another reason why it’s important to teach statistics (and the limitations of statistics) in high school.

    Bottom line: Freakonomics is a good read, with some interesting ideas, but it’s written for the general public, meaning the book is short (3 hour read) with quite a bit of narrative around the science.

  43. #44 Pareto
    October 29, 2007

    Ah, I didn’t mean to suggest that econ is filled with ideological bias or anything. Rather, as usually happens, in the areas which involve a lot of history, there might be many interpretations, and different perspectives may come to different conclusions. So you’d have to use your own head.

  44. #45 albatross
    October 29, 2007

    I imagine Scott Adams knows a great deal about being a successful cartoonist. One risk of great success in one area of life is that it sometimes inflates your sense of your own cleverness/rightness in other areas of life. Part of this also comes out of being fairly smart, right? If you’re smarter than most people around you, you can come to believe that your opinions or ideas are almost always right, because you win all the arguments, wow those around you with your brilliance, etc.

    And this is a tarpit, because for most useful, important questions you want to answer, you need to know a bunch of facts and relationships, too. If you want to see a truly awful version of this, read a biography of Ayn Rand sometime. She appears to have convinced herself that she could make authoritative statements about physics, economics, psychology, etc., on the basis of pure reasoning from the right premises–she was obviously right, because none of the cultish followers she’d gathered ever won an argument with her.

    But it’s a common ailment.

  45. #46 mattm
    October 29, 2007

    Scott Adams’ comments on evolution are irreducibly moronic, he should stick to his boring little cartoons.
    As I understand it economics is little more than the idiot bastard son of ecology.

  46. #47 Jimi
    October 29, 2007

    “[religionists] project god from themselves, so when you get angry at them for being demented fuckwits, they automatically project that you must really be angry at god.”

    It might be that but I also think it’s just a deep seated stereotype. My sister-in-law upon hearing of my atheism asked me very sincerely, “why do you hate God?” This was not a jab at me but a sincere question because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism consists. It was inconceivable that it’s a simply an absence of belief, much less that there’s any possibility of god not existing so it must mean hatred of god. No other possibility crossed her mind.

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