Thursday, November 12, 2009

On More Serious Topics

Recently I heard a BBC interview with Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics. I was very startled when he said this:

"We wrote about the economics of prostitution. But we wrote about some more serious topics, too."

I don't often talk to myself (out loud), but when I heard that I said "What???"

Based on what I heard in the rest of the interview, I think Dubner was saying that he and his colleague write about lots of wacky, offbeat topics (and he, unfortunately, considers prostitution to be one of these kinds of topics), but they also discuss other subjects that are a bit more sobering, like climate change.

Or maybe he was joking and I just didn't get the joke because I am humorless?

31 comments:

Dr. Confused said...

That makes me like him even less than I already did. Prostitution, ha, ha, ha! All a bunch of fun and games for men.

Have you read any of his books? My husband loved Freakonomics so I read it as well. My husband has no math or science background. I found the book to be a huge load of tripe. It was an entire book premised on conflating correlation and causation, served up with a generous helping of self-satisfied preening about being rogue economicists or some such. It used racist tropes. It was sure that Oranjello/Lemonjello was a true story, and not an urban legend (see http://www.snopes.com/racial/language/names.asp ) because a respected academic said he once met them in a grocery store. Right. (There is a good response to his name chapter here: http://www.babynamewizard.com/archives/2005/4/name-onomics )

Anonymous said...

There was a nice funny article on that and I think it won the Nobel Ig Prize too.

The overall conclusion from that study was that prostitutes (or lap dancers) often gets tipped more when they are not on the pill and was ovulating.

Anonymous said...

Got you! This time you're caught on the wrong foot... there are male prostitutes as well... and so, by implicitly saying that prostitution relates only to women... you might just have expressed a sexist thought.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the author finds the economics of sweat shops equally amusing and off-the-wall.

ISS said...

Perhaps the tone of the piece of writing about prostitution to which he refers is a bit tongue-in-cheek. If it were then he may have meant that he also writes 'more seriously' about other topics? Sometimes things just make the brain-mouth leap a little haphazardly! I find it hard to believe that anyone would think that the subject of prostitution was not to be taken seriously....

Alyssa said...

That's rather disturbing.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What an ass.

/But of course prostitution is wacky hijinks! I mean, what's not funny about economically coerced sex, am I right?/end dumbass.exe

Anonymous said...

He probably meant, "topics that journals in my field interpret as serious research", and not the more common usage of the term "topics that represent serious issues". Interest rates are a serious issue, but if you studied them as a physical scientist, would you be taken seriously? He wrote a whole book chapter about it, so it is safe to say that he takes it seriously as both a social issue and a topic of economic research, and he was probably attributing the "unserious research" judgement to others in his field (and attributing the "unserious issue" judgement to no one).

Or, he is a misogynistic woman-hater bent on the destruction of the woman's rights movement. You can assume the worst about people if you want, but I find that if I try to assume the best about people and only criticize them when I am unable to find an alternative explanation, then a lot of problems in life go away and I have more time to focus on real problems.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon- It isn't about male or female prostitutes, but the concept of prostitution being considered "less serious".

John V said...

I'd guess that Dubner meant less serious in the sense that prostitution is usually approached from moral or sociological viewpoints, which is the view FSP herself takes, rather than judging it's merits from simply an economic point of view.

Similarly, one could measure drug dealing by how to maximize profits rather than by what might society do to alleviate the problems - that might also be a less "serious" topic.

It does reveal a blindness in Dubner to misperceptions generated by ambiguities in his words. Or worse, FSP's view that he finds the economics of prostitution, which is really the driving force behind why it exists, less serious, may actually be correct.

female Science Professor said...

Anon 2:38: Are you inferring that I implied that all prostitutes are women because.. ? Actually, I have no idea where you got that from. Because I am a woman writing about this? Because you have an irrational desire to catch me "on the wrong foot." Are you, by the way, implicitly saying that only women have feet?

Alex said...

Studying the economics of prostitution means, for the purposes of an economic model, treating it as just one more business transaction rather than considering the full range of social, psychological, cultural, and equity issues involved. In that sense, anybody who does give due consideration to the full range of issues involved should consider a strictly economic analysis not particularly serious.

Levitt is known for doing that: Take a complex social issue (e.g. drug gangs, or baby names, or abortion), pretend that the only dimension is economic, and see what you can learn. That sort of analysis doesn't give these topics a full consideration of all of the relevant issues, so it isn't necessarily a very serious analysis, but sometimes he learns interesting things.

So, basically, I see an analysis like "Prostitution: Just another business!" or "Baby names: It's all about the Benjamins!" as inherently off-beat and less serious than the underlying topic.

Anonymous said...

A columnist at the Guardian criticized Dubner & Levitt's chapter on prostitution:
Guardian Oct 2009

It sounds like they did not treat it as a serious topic

Mortinus said...

@FSP: Your rebuttal to Anon 2:38 in regards to his comment...very 3rd grade.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure FSP was mighty bright and articulate when she was in 3rd grade.

What's with all the trolls these days?

Sarah said...

@Mortinus Not really.

Ambivalent Academic said...

I thought FSP's rebuttal to the asinine comment from anonymous @ 2:38 was spot-on. At no point did she say explicitly or implicitly that all prostitutes are women, nor does it have nay bearing at all on the argument. The "logic" leading to Anon 2:38's implication is equivalent to saying that only women have feet.

Anonymous said...

Everyone need not have the same priorities as you do.

mixlamalice said...

Though FSP said that she was "humorless", refering (see link) to a post about humorless feminists. One can probably argue that she was indeed implying that prostitution is a feminist issue...

amy said...

And, of course, saying that prostitution is a feminist issue in no way implies that prostitutes are all women. Rather, it implies that prostitution as a social phenomenon involves problematic gender relations that would be helpfully studied using feminist analysis. The phenomenon of male prostitution has been taken seriously as a feminist issue by feminist theorists, and they don't try to analyze it in separation from their analysis of female prostitution.

Furthermore, even if FSP did say something sexist at some point, why the hell would that matter? First of all, everyone raised in a sexist culture is prone to unconscious sexist biases. All the studies showing biased responses to male and female CVs, for example, find women just as prone to the bias as men, and that includes women and men who identify themselves as feminist. Second of all, that someone says something sexist in no way means that everything else they say about gender is false -- that's the ad hominem fallacy. People who don't like a person's views often try to find any small flaw or inconsistency they can, so they can feel free to reject everything the person says. It's sloppy reasoning and not worthy of a scientifically-trained mind. Each claim has to be evaluated on its own merits.

Katie said...

Anon 2:38 - you brought up sex first - got YOU!

Mortinus - Perhaps you meant Anon 2:38's comment is very 3rd grade? Because FSP's is just plain right.

mixlamalice - Your logic is quite flawed.

Anonymous said...

The book Superfreakonomics is also filled with pseudoscience and riddled with holes on the subject of climate change. See here for more.

evil_fizz said...

Levitt has a history of making asinine remarks about prostitution. After being told that making jokes comparing rice and prostitutes was inappropriate, he responded by being a petulant twit and proposing people compare economists to garbage. It was ridiculously adolescent.

AndyD said...

I think the problem is that economists, especially of the Chicago school, tend to look down on any and all moral arguments, as well as maintaining the pretense that there is never any need to consider how any economic process actually works in detail.

So they really don't care if prostitution causes damage, physical or psychological, to the 'service providers', because if it does, it must already be factored into the price.. so there is no need for 'customers' to be in the slightest bit concerned. In this reality-proof world that they have constructed, no action has any consequences other than the monetary cost.

The only analogy I can find with real science is with the teaching of newtonian mechanics, where we have things like massless, frictionless pulleys to make calculations simpler; but the whole point is that the assumptions are stated up-front, and are to some extent a running in-joke. Whereas economists of the Chicago stripe pretend that these assumptions describe the real world.

Of course, occasionally they have to confront the fact that their policies fail catastrophically, but (and this is the classic) because their starting assumptions include perfect markets with zero government intervention, and this condition can never, ever be fulfilled inthe real world, they can ALWAYS blame government. So whatever happens, they are always right.

Which would all be well and good if they didn't have the ears of half the governments of the planet. It's a bit worrying that they do..

Anonymous said...

a male prostitute is usually referred to as a gigalo.

a female prostitute is just a prostitute.

Anonymous said...

Wow, some of the comments have really devolved here. We're now competing to see who can most cleverly compare someone to a youngster (3rd grader, adolescent). Reminds me of when I was in elementary school and someone called me immature. I very cleverly (so I thought) retorted, "yeah well, you're pre-mature!" Haha.

Seriously though, what does it mean to argue or respond like a child? Be overly defensive? Insult or threaten the other person? Change to a completely unrelated subject? Argue using transparently flawed logic?

In my opinion, FSP tends to argue at an exceptionally high level. FSP did not imply anything related to gender in this post, and correctly made that point in response to the misguided commenter. Perhaps with a little snarky humor mixed in. Thank goodness for humor. And snark.

Doctor Pion said...

CNBC has done a number of stories about the economics of various illegal (marijuana production) and sometimes legal (porn industry) enterprises that operate on the fringes of polite society.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who thought the Anon 2:38 comment was sarcastic? I then thought that well maybe feminists are humor impaired or I'm another clueless male. (I'm sure the safer bet is the latter)

mixlamalice said...

I thought this goes well in the "topic":
http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article6917495.ece

Anonymous said...

A male prostitute around here is normally referred to as a "rent boy" and serves a male client base.

Sex work economics is inherently less serious because its the economics of a particular kind of labour, rather than a generalisable set.

Now the political economy or labour history of sex work is fucking interesting. Its a central example of the difference between esteemed and non esteemed domestic labour, and of the convertability of one into another. Comparing sex workers, domestic servants, and wives in a labour economics sense would be fundamentally interesting.

My local funder for these purposes won't pay living costs, are you willing to provide a grant?

karthik durvasula said...

I think that is a terribly unfair criticism of Dubner's statement by you - FemaleScienceProfessor.

He clearly said and meant the "economics of prostitution" is not an issue people would consider important. Which is different from the issue of prostitution, per se.