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Patri Friedman on Lott's Cats

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Patri Friedman says that John Lott got his facts on hypoallergenic cats wrong... among other things. Anyone want to take sides?


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COMMENTS (19 to date)

I liked Freedomnomics, so feel free to discount what I say about P. Friedman's criticisms of Lott, but they seem pretty weak to me.

Friedman: "Exhibit A: While I haven't read Lott's latest book Freedomnomics, Bryan Caplan's review mentioned ..." So Friedman is trashing the book based on a single item, and that based only on a snippet in a review without reading the actual book passage in question? And Friedman dismisses Lott as insufficiently careful in his scholarship?

Friedman: "Allerca ... have never actually shipped any cats, and as far as anyone can tell at this point, their product is vaporware. (See Wikipedia, or Google for [Allerca vaporware]). Citing the economic theories of a vaporware producer w.r.t. their product does not exactly suggest careful scholarship."

Wikipedia does not say that the product is vaporware. Sources who do say it are speculating. True, the announced ship date is later this year. So Lott can be criticized for his choice of verb tense: he should have used the future tense in describing how Allerca will (it has announced) neuter its cats to avoid facing competition from their offspring. But it seems too soon to declare the product vaporware just yet.

Exhibit B, if true, is serious. But hearsay does not rise to the standard of an Exhibit. I would take it more seriously coming from David Friedman.

Sean writes:

The Allerca website claims to have been shipping kittens since the end of 06, and has a number of YouTubed television spots showing the cats with their new owners to prove it.

Is there any *specific* reason to doubt any of this, Patri?

Tim Lambert writes:

I have the details of Patri Friedman's exhibit B right here.

John Lott writes:

1) The paragraph that I had on the Allerca cats was based on two news stories that came out when was writing the book last fall (Meghan Daum, “$4k Cat Is Nothing to Sneeze At,” Los Angeles Times, October 7, 2006, and “Hypoallergenic Cats for Sale,” ABC News, October 6, 2006 (http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=2537618)). The point was a simple one that simply giving a producer a patent isn't always enough to ensure that the producer can earn the profits necessary to encourage innovation. I used the cat example because it was very current. There were of course other examples that could have been used. I have no idea who is correct on this point and I appreciate Patri bringing it to my attention (if indirectly).

2) As to the Merced instance, I believe that I sent his Dad these references here, here, and here. I also believe that I mentioned to him that I had talked to the children's grandfather. If Patri's Dad didn't get this information, I assume that it must have been my fault, but the newspaper articles and Fox News interview is still relevant for determining the facts. I investigated this carefully and if you think that I am wrong, please let me know.

David Friedman writes:

John wrote:

"As to the Merced instance, I believe that I sent his Dad these references here, here, and here. "

I don't know if you sent them, but I never received them. They certainly make the account you gave much closer to accurate than what I was able to find.

If, however, you compare Vin's version--which, if I remember correctly, was also yours--to the news stories, you will see that he has added to the story as reported in the paper. In his and (I think) your version:

"Next, the sensible girl ran for where the family guns were stored. But they were locked up tight."

That is not in any of the news stories. All they claim is that there was a gun somewhere, hidden. And it is "gun" not "guns."

On your web page, you say:

"don't know how anybody can say that Suprynowicz's quote was inaccurate."

Now you do.

Brad Hutchings writes:

The New York Daily News posted a picture gallery in April of fake Allerca cats here (<-- click that). If you look closely, you can see Elvis, UFOs, Jimmy Hoffa, Saddam's WMDs, and the Easter Bunny in the pictures. No indication of whether they are running for the gun (or guns) or whether there were just guns locked as required by statute somewhere in the house.

Tim Lambert writes:

The posts that John Lott links above were written in response to the posts on my blog here. (Lott does not mention this in his posts, because he does not want his readers to see my posts.) I made the same point David Friedman made above -- none of the news stories supports his claim that "the sensible girl ran for where the family guns were stored. But they were locked up tight."

So it's not true that Lott just learned this now -- he's known about it for years.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I know nothing about hypoallergenic cats nor about this specific gun case that is being discussed. I wish to reply to Lawrence White and others who think that the book is good.

Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, although I have so far not been impressed with the degree of insight provided by the various examples and cases it presents. But that is a matter of opinion. I have a different position.

I think people should not buy this book because John Lott has violated norms of academic discourse that should be maintained by his lawsuits against Levitt. That this book is a takoff on a book whose author he has apparently been frivolously suing makes this worse. I have blogged on this on maxspeak, where John Lott has replied to some of the points made. He notes that he cannot discuss the suit, and I understand that. My point is that he should never have brought the suit and he should be socially punished for doing so. Bringing of frivolous lawsuits in academic discourse is like dueling in the 19th century. Nothing good comes of it and it should be socially disapproved of. This is a norm that needs to be enforced by the academic community.

I grant that there are situations where lawsuits may be necessary. If someone has been falsely accused of plagiarism and they are being fired, sue. If someone is being falsely accused of sexual harassment or something else that can lead to them being fired, sue. If someone has been turned down for tenure on discriminatory or illegal grounds, sue.

But, while I presume that John Lott would disagree if he could speak of it, as near as I can tell, nothing of the sort is involved here. What we have are disagreements about methodologies and their characterization in research, not allegations of plagiarism. Such disagreements go on all the time. They should be resolved scientifically in open discourse, not in a court of law.

If you want to read the book, get it out of a library.

John Lott writes:

Dear Brad:

Thanks for the picture!

Dear David:

Thanks for the comment. I would note that I was interviewed on a radio show with one of the Grandfathers of the girl who had been killed (he is a minister) (and I also talked to him at a later date on the telephone). In both conversations, he confirmed the statement that you point to "they were locked up tight." The one discrepency was that it was my understanding that there was only one gun. I believe that I related this information to you.

In any case, Fox News did a story on the incident and the reporter interviewed myself and the father. I was interviewed first by the reporter and told him what I knew of the story. It was my understanding that the reporter then used that information as the basis of the interview that he had with the father. While the discussion could be a little clearer, the reporter did not apparently find anything that contradicted what I told him:

Lott cited a Merced, Calif. family whose guns were put away because of the state's safe storage law. John Carpenter, who lost two children in an attack in 2000, said a gun would have stopped the man who broke into his home with a pitchfork.

"If a gun had been here, today I'd have at least a daughter alive," Carpenter said.

For several years, gun control advocates have been quoting a study that reached a very different conclusion. University of Washington doctors claimed that in a dozen states which had safe storage laws, 39 children's lives were saved.

Gun locks and the inability to access guns because of those locks was the whole point of the story (the title was "Study: Guns No Safer When Locked Up").. If so, the story would not have been run using that example if the original claim that you disagree with was false.

Dear Mr. Lambert:

Not that I expect you to get anything correct and that you feel that you are the center of the world, but the posts directly note that "couple of people have asked me . . . ." My website regularly thanks people for sending me links and questions.

David Friedmand writes:

Just a followup on my previous post, after looking more carefully at both John and Tim's webbed material.

John's version of the events, as I remember it from the talk he gave, was that the original story in the local paper included the relevant facts about the gun that the daughter would have used if it had not been locked away, but the information was deleted by the national media--clear evidence of bias. I (again, this is by memory from several years ago) hunted up the original story in the local paper and found that no such facts were there, told John, and was disappointed to later hear that he was still using the story. I never got the additional information that is on his web page that he says he sent me.

Checking the stories from the local paper that John links to, the earlier, which cites the children's great uncle, is from August 26th, three days after the killing. The later, which quotes the father, is from a week after the killing.

Googling around, I found an AP story on the killing. It's dated August 25th. So it looks as though what John was complaining about, if my memory of his talk is correct, was the failure of the AP to report in its August 25th story a fact from the local newspaper that had not yet been published.

John Lott writes:

Yes, David's recollection is basically correct. After being on a radio show interview with the grandfather (I was on simply because of my writings on gun and to make general comments on what the Grandfather was saying about the experience), I looked into the coverage more carefully and I later made comments about the newscoverage of the event. There was one original news story that got the facts of the story correct, but while later stories confirm it, I haven't been able to find that particular piece again. The coverage in other places outside of the local coverage (with the exception of Fox News) did not get into the gun issues. Thanks, David.

The point in The Bias Against Guns that Patri was referring to was much narrower than that however. I had used a quote from Vin Suprynowicz to lead on of the subsections of the book and that quote focused on the issue of gun lock laws on safety. Except of Vin's statement about "guns" instead of "gun," I believe what he wrote was correct.

Tim Lambert writes:

Dear Mr Lott, I raised the issue of the accuracy of the Suprynowicz quote in a May 23 post. You had a post defending the accuracy of the quote on May 24. Are you seriously trying to argue that this was a coincidence? That someone just happened to mail you the same question on the same day as my post?

On May 27 I posted a response to your May 24 post questioning the accuracy of the Fox News quote. Later that day you wrote a post about a response to your May 24 post that questioned the accuracy of the Fox News post. Is this supposed to be another coincidence?

Finally, none of the news stories you have posted support Suprynowicz's claim that "the sensible girl ran for where the family guns were stored. But they were locked up tight." But you maintain that the claim is correct. I think you've more than proved Patri's point in Exhibit B.

Patri Friedman writes:

The Allerca website claims to have been shipping kittens since the end of 06, and has a number of YouTubed television spots showing the cats with their new owners to prove it.

The Allerca website has been claiming things for many years which did not turn out to be true (like that they were about to ship cats), so I am inclined to discount it. Those YouTube videos are the first actual cats I've seen, which is promising. When you say "new owners", which spot are you referring to? In the one I watched (ABC7) the "owner" was identified as an Allerca spokesperson.

I would love to be wrong, but I have not heard/seen any evidence that they have sold any cats. And if you look at stories like http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/metro/20060716-9999-1n16allerca.html, from one year ago, you see them admit that they aren't shipping cats yet "Allerca, a self-described biotechnology company, began soliciting cat fanciers last month to fork out an eye-watering minimum of $3,950 to “pre-purchase” one of its kittens. And even though Allerca says it will take up to two years to deliver the pets, the company predicts demand will soon reach 10,000 kittens a year." So as of a year ago, they were ready to accept money but were a couple years away from a product. The article also says various disturbing things:

"Allerca was evicted in February from its San Diego headquarters – which was also Brodie's residence – in the downtown 777 Sixth Avenue Lofts complex for nonpayment of rent, according to court records. In addition, Allerca, Brodie and other Brodie-affiliated companies have accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in bad debt in recent years."

"This is not the first time that Allerca founder Brodie has been involved in companies that propose to do things on a grand scale. At various times, the entrepreneur has promoted companies that proposed to create the world's most powerful computer processor, as well as a national Wi-Fi network.

Some of Brodie's companies seem to appear suddenly and fade quickly, and in some cases leave behind unhappy clients, unpaid employees, debts, lawsuits, court judgments and liens, according to court records, former Brodie associates and media accounts."

http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/metro/20060716-9999-1n16allerca.html

Brad Hutchings writes:

I'm lost. The SignOnSanDiego article is dated over a year ago. Just about every "shady" thing they suggest has happened in Brodie's career might happen in any entrepreneur's career. Startups have ridiculous business plans, hockey stick graphs, partners out to screw you, financial peril, repo'd cars, lawyer letters, lawsuits, you name it. It happens.

The NYDN gallery is dated in April, showing a customer who paid for the cats a year ago (actually, her ex-husband did so he could keep the car, interesting story) who is satisfied that the product meets her needs. Now, that's 1 cat, not 5000 this year. But it also doesn't look like fraud, just a company that's a little behind on fulfilling its orders for a new product. You might as well have called the Nintendo Wii a fraud for the first half of the year, and I can assure you it wasn't, because I had one.

I bet all this vitriol would go away if we could just settle this stuff with wagers.

Steve Sailer writes:

This Allerca cat debate seems pretty pointless. Lott wasn't citing this as part of an argument that genetic engineering was currently feasibly or anything like that, he was merely giving an example of a clever way a company had thought of to protect its intellectual property rights.

The more general question is comparing Freedomnomics to Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, a book with a number of now notorious problems. The economics profession, as a whole, however, encouraged public credulity over Freakonomics. A plausible explanation for this is that economists saw it in their self-interest for one of their number to become a celebrity to glamorize the whole business. Strange as it may seem, economists also act out of self-interest!

In response to Barkeley Rosser: For what it is worth, I agree with your statements that Lott "never have brought the suit" and "it should be socially disapproved of." I have socially disapproved of it on my blog here. But what should Lott do? He should air his grievances against Levitt in the court of public opinion. I applaud the book as an attempt to do just that.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Lawrence,

It would have helped if he had chosen a title that was not such an obvious ripoff, especially in light of the lawsuits, the first of which (and most important as near as I can tell), has already been thrown out.

I would certainly agree that a book is an appropriate response, and at least parts of this one are such a response, if overhyped by many. I am not going to get further here into specific disagreements or complaints about specific points, some of which I commented on in my blog, but were not the specific points raised here.

Sean writes:

Patri,

The Allerca website has been claiming things for many years which did not turn out to be true (like that they were about to ship cats), so I am inclined to discount it. Those YouTube videos are the first actual cats I've seen, which is promising. When you say "new owners", which spot are you referring to? In the one I watched (ABC7) the "owner" was identified as an Allerca spokesperson.

I had the Rachael Ray spot in mind. The woman named Nina and her children.

I would love to be wrong, but I have not heard/seen any evidence that they have sold any cats. And if you look at stories like... [snip]

I'm not sure how meaningful these reports are if, as they say, shipping began late 06.

8 writes:

This is why my friend dropped out of academia and became a lawyer. At least he gets paid to argue now.

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