I finally got a chance to read Noam Scheiber's sharp tear-down of Freaknomics-style research -- tackling all kinds of fun problems that don't have much to do with deep questions in in economics. Steven Levitt and Scheiber have had at least one round of back and forth.
While I have to ask you to read those pieces, I will point to a couple of juicy quotes Scheiber managed to get from some of the other hotshots in economics:
Raj Chetty (Berkeley): "People think about the question less than the method. ... They're not thinking: What important question should I answer?' So you get weird papers, like sanitation facilities in Native American reservations."
David Card (Berkeley): "It is exactly like postmodernism in the humanities. [...] What is there to say about Beethoven anymore? ... Every moron can't understand technical orchestration, doesn't know the history of music. So you write about him having a gay affair with his nephew."
Finally, it's worth highlighting an Asian angle in this cute-o-nomics story: Amartya Sen's thesis about 100 million "missing women", mostly in Asia. Here's Scheiber:
Perhaps the most infamous example is a paper written by a recent Harvard Ph.D. named Emily Oster. While still an undergraduate, Oster had become fascinated by the so-called "missing women" problem--the hypothesis, attributed to Amartya Sen, that gender discrimination in Asia has created a vast shortage of women. In some cases parents abort daughters, in some cases they commit infanticide, in some cases they simply don't care for their daughters as diligently as they should. Whatever the cause, Sen has suggested there could be as many as 100 million "missing women" in countries like China, India, and Pakistan.
Years later, while wrapping up her Ph.D., Oster stumbled onto a seemingly unrelated fact: a small medical literature suggesting that women with hepatitis B were far more likely to give birth to boys. What followed was a series of sophisticated natural experiments, the upshot of which was to demonstrate that 100 million women hadn't gone missing after all. Instead, unusually high rates of hepatitis B had arranged it so that Asian mothers were producing far more boys than nature's track record would suggest.
It was a fabulously compelling result, one that partially absolved whole societies of lurid crimes against their children. [...]
I recall linking to a news story about Oster's paper two years ago (I'm not able to locate that post) when it made a splash. It turns out that a later piece of research has essentially negated Oster's findings. Here's Scheiber again:
... Levitt complains ... that I got "all the facts wrong" in my discussion of Emily Oster's paper on "missing women"--that is, the gap between the number of women we should observe in countries like China, India, and Pakistan and the number of women we actually observe. Unfortunately for Oster (and for Levitt, who published the paper as co-editor of the Journal of Political Economy), subsequent work by a Berkeley graduate student and two Taiwanese researchers has more or less overturned her result. If Levitt knows of a way to reconcile Oster's findings with these two seemingly devastating papers, I'd be curious to hear it. (In fact, I sent him an e-mail to this effect before publishing my piece. He never responded.) But simply asserting that Oster is right and her critics are wrong leaves much to be desired as a style of argumentation.