Andrew Gelman writes, under a typographical nightmare of a headline:
Back in the day, Steven Levitt was a “rogue economist,” a genial rebel who held a mix of political opinions (for example, in 2008 thinking Obama would be “the greatest president in history” while pooh-poohing concerns about recession at the time), along with some soft contrarianism (most notoriously claiming that drunk walking was worse than drunk driving, but also various little things like saying that voting in a presidential election is not so smart). Basically, he was positioning himself as being a little more playful and creative than the usual economics professor. A rogue relative to a stable norm.
I wonder how the Freakonomics team feels now, in an era of quasi-academic celebrities such as Dr. Oz and Jordan Peterson, and podcasters like Joe Rogan who push all sorts of conspiracy theories, and not just nutty but hey-why-not ideas such as UFO’s and space aliens but more dangerous positions such as vaccine denial.
Being a contrarian’s all fun and games when you’re defining yourself relative to a reasonable center, maybe not so much when you’re surrounded by crazies.
The parallel in medicine is John Ioannidis, who went from a praised debunker of bad science to a controversial “covid minimizer” without really changing his M.O. So, have their ways always been suspect, have their methods become faulty with the changing circumstances, or are they in the right even now, and it is the hyper-polarized environment to blame for our skewed perspective of their current work? I haven’t a clue.
Or you can look at it through the lens Venkatesh Rao’s field guide to the new culture wars, which is relevant even without a post-covid revision. The academic iconoclasts like Ioannidis, Levitt, et al. are useful in peacetime to serve as an internal control, strengthening the ranks or whatnot — I am not familiar enough with military culture to pick a better analogy — but become useful fools at best and traitorous collaborators at worst when the opposing sides gain in strength and start an offensive. But then, you still need some contrarians around to keep you in check. So how do you square that circle?
Well, Elon Musk helped when he destroyed Twitter. Criticizing one’s academic elders is a centuries-long tradition, tolerated and at times promoted, provided one didn’t do it out in the open. But saying anything to “civilians” — only there are no civilians in the culture wars, just potential alias and foes — is… was… is unseemly.
For better or worse, the barricades are on their way back, the indisciminate co-mingling of ideologies is waning, and (a different set of) iconoclasts will again find their groove. So it goes…