NEWS

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April 21, 2006

Freakonomics claim sparks defamation lawsuit

John Lott, Jr., a former visiting professor at the University, filed a defamation lawsuit on April 10 against economics professor Steven Levitt, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Freakonomics.

Lott said the book misrepresents his work on guns and crime, according to court documents. The lawsuit does not name journalist Stephen Dubner, though he co-wrote the book with Levitt.

Freakonomics, which melds Levitt’s economic essays with Dubner’s flowing prose, remains high on the bestseller list. The book’s success, however, may have prompted the legal action, as the lawsuit references the popularity of Freakonomics as a factor contributing to Lott’s damaged reputation.

The lawsuit states that the book “damages Lott’s reputation in the eyes of the academic community in which he works, and in the minds of hundreds of thousands of academics, college students, graduate students, and members of the general public who read Freakonomics.”

The contested material is on pages 133–134 of Freakonomics, in which Levitt writes that researchers have been unable to confirm Lott’s conclusion that right-to-carry gun laws actually reduce crime.

Freakonomics states, “Then 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 or not the data was faked, Lott’s admittedly intriguing hypothesis doesn’t seem to be true. When other scholars have tried to replicate results, they found that right-to-carry laws simply don’t bring down crime.”

According to the lawsuit, Lott acknowledges that his findings have come under scrutiny in the academic community, but he maintains that he used “different data or methods to analyze the relationship between gun control laws and crime.”

The lawsuit states that scholars who have replicated Lott’s work have achieved the same results. “Every time that an economist or researcher have tried to replicate [Lott’s] results, he or she has confirmed Lott’s conclusion.”

Carl Moody, a professor of economics at the College of William and Mary, said he successfully replicated Lott’s findings and published the results in 2001. Moody said Levitt’s accusation is wrong.

The lawsuit, which also names Levitt’s publisher HarperCollins, states that the publisher acted with malice by failing to verify the statements. It seeks a court order to halt sales of Freakonomics until the statements are retracted or amended and also demands that Levitt and HarperCollins pay unspecified monetary damages.

HarperCollins would not comment on the lawsuit, but a company representative said, “HarperCollins Publishers firmly stands behind Freakonomics and its authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.”

The ABC show 20/20 featured Freakonomics in an hour-long special on April 14. However, there was no mention of the lawsuit, and Levitt has yet to comment on it publicly. The book’s website, Freakonomics.com, which has Levitt’s and Dubner’s weblogs, includes a brief mention of the pending litigation.

“While we were away [in London promoting the paperback edition of Freakonomics], the economist John Lott filed a lawsuit claiming that Freakonomics has libeled him,” wrote Dubner on his blog.

Lott’s website made no mention of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit has opened up discussion on the veracity of Levitt’s claims and whether a lawsuit is an appropriate forum for an academic debate.

The litigation has also shed light on what can happen when an academic book attains blockbuster status.

“Most academic debate is so trivial no one would care,” Moody said. “If the book had appeared and no one had bought it, it wouldn’t be an issue. But Levitt is accusing this guy of falsifying his results in front of millions of people.”