April 15, 2006
Lott v. Levitt: Is This Defamation?
Posted by Gordon Smith

Johnlott Have you been reading about Lott v. Levitt? I just read Lott's complaint, which was posted at Overlawyered by Ted Frank, who add some other helpful links. Here is the contested passage from Freakonomics:

There was the troubling allegation that Lott actually invented some of the survey data that supports his more-guns/less-crime theory. Regardless of whether the data were faked, Lott's admittedly intriguing hypothesis doesn't seem to be true. When other scholars have tried to replicate [Lott's] results, they found that right-to-carry laws simply don't bring down crime.

The complaint turns on the meaning of the word "replicate." According to Kevin Drum, "Needless to say, to 'replicate' a result doesn't necessarily mean to use precisely the same data and methods as the original researcher." Of course, as Drum implies, it might mean that. The problem here is that "replicate" has a variety of meanings. For example, here is a nice paper distinguishing "econometric audits" from "improvisational replication." The former "uses the same data sources, models, proxy variables, and statistical methods as its predecessor piece of research," while the latter "seeks to depart in a carefully justified way from the rote reproduction of someone else’s work."

Lott's complaint rests on the notion that "replication" in this context is an econometric audit: "the clear and unambiguous meaning is that 'other scholars' have analyzed the identical data that Lott analyzed and analyzed it in the way Lott did in order to determine whether they can reach the same result."

Stevenlevitt It hardly seems "clear and unambiguous," but let's play along for the sake of argument. Further, let's assume that Lott is right when he claims that no other scholars have attempted to replicate his results in this sense and failed. Is the contrary claim in Freakonomics defamatory? According to the complaint, "The allegations that other scholars have been unable "to replicate [Lott's] results is defamatory per se because it attacks Lott's integrity and honesty in his profession as an economist, scholar and researcher."

This is patently silly. Even if Levitt were using the term "replicate" in its narrow sense ("econometric audit"), the claim of non-replicability does not necessarily imply that Lott has been dishonest. Inadvertent errors in empirical work are legion. If a researcher's results cannot be replicated in the narrow sense we are using, you might infer that the researcher cooked the books, but you might also infer that the person simply made a mistake. Or that the underlying data -- provided from other sources -- were corrupt. Levitt does not exclude the possibility that Lott is cooking the books, but that conclusion does not necessarily follow from Levitt's statement.

I am no defamation scholar, but my recollection is that defamation is pretty tough to prove. Given all of the ambiguities in Levitt's statement, I would be very surprised if Lott could carry the burden.

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