Levitt and the Language of Science

So for instance, after we published Freakonomics, some of my colleagues were not that wild about the book and the attention we received. So to try to shame me, one of my colleagues put up anonymously on the bulletin board for the department of economics a supposed quote from me that said, they claimed that I had said that, "Mathematics was not required to understand reality." Right? And this was supposed to be the most shameful, embarrassing quote. And the idea was that if it was known publicly that I had said this that it would ruin my reputation and I would feel awful about myself. But in fact it had just the opposite effect because I don't think mathematics is necessary to understand reality, and indeed I took tremendous satisfaction from the idea that I stood apart from the profession in believing this thing, which I think is obviously true. So while the intention of the act was to shame me, I've still got that sign up in my office. And I get utility out of it every single day when I walk in and I see it.

— Steven Levitt, excerpted from here

I remember hearing this quote in the Freakonomics podcast. I seem to recall thinking that Levitt misspoke, and couldn't possibly mean what he said.

Reading the quote again now, I'm uncertain if Levitt is being intentionally misleading, or if he has convinced himself of the case. Levitt is an economist. That means, most likely, that large parts of his research rely on regression (probably of the linear variety, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he uses things like additive models. This work falls under the name 'econometrics,' which is economist slang for statistics. Which means it relies heavily on mathematics.

Of course, Levitt may be claiming that he can get by using these tools without understanding them. That would at least represent an honest statement. It probably wouldn't be good for his credibility or his career, but it would be honest. I also doubt that a Harvard and MIT educated economist doesn't understand basic regression.

Levitt tends to take the contrarian viewpoint on a lot of topics, sometimes because of temperament and sometimes because of the facts. But in this case, he is being intentionally misleading.