The Economics of Book Publishing

Much as I admire Steven Levitt, I hated

his meretricious book, Freakonomics, and I’ve made a conscious decision not

to put the Freakonomics blog in my blogroll. The huge success of the book, however,

has meant that a lot of other social scientists have tried to replicate its

success by using pseudo-provocative headings such as "What Bill Gates and

Paul McCartney have in common with criminals".

I haven’t read recent efforts along those lines by Tyler Cowen

or Tim Harford or Steven Landsburg, so I won’t

say anything about them. And I haven’t read Why Beautiful People Have More

Daughters by Satoshi Kanazawa, either, an excerpt

from which includes that bit about Paul McCartney. What I have read is an utterly

compelling take-down

of Kanazawa’s methodology by Andrew Gelman of Columbia


Gelman is conflicted

about the book, and about Kanazawa’s work in general:

I just don’t know how to think about this. It’s clear to me how journalists,

bloggers, and reviewers should react: the should discuss this work with skepticism.

The trouble is that the papers were published in a reputable journal (J. Theor.

Biology), and a journalist/blogger/reviewer who does not happen to see my

critique would naturally tend to trust the result…

Should I blame Kanazawa? I don’t want to be dismissive of scientific speculation–I

don’t like the idea of statistican as censor–so maybe there would be a way

for him to present more of the full

statistical story in his book (for example, in the beauty-and-daughters

study, a graph with the proportion of girls born to people of all five beauty

categories–rather than just comparing categories 1-4 to category 5–along

with the beauty assessments from all three waves of the study). It’s a tough

call to decide how to present speculative findings.

I think Gelman is being far too easy on Kanazawa here. The book, especially,

has nothing to do with presenting speculative findings, and everything to do

with trying to hit a Freakonomics-style home run in the publishing world. This

isn’t science, it’s business. And if a book like this can sell more copies by

fudging the science, there’s a good chance that it will. That’s basic economics,

that is.

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