Sunday, March 21, 2004

Marginal Revolution: Born to Sue?

Alex Tabarrok has posted a story about legal intimidation and intellectual dishonesty that deserves to get wider circulation.

Frank Sulloway's Born to Rebel (BTR) was a smash hit when it was published in 1996. Sulloway's thesis, that laterborns are born to rebel while first-borns are conformist defenders of the status quo, was initially greeted with some skepticism among experts who knew of an earlier review of the large literature on birth order that had found little evidence for an effect on personality. The thesis struck a cord with the public, however, and Sulloway seemed to have gathered so much data from so many different sources (including scientific revolutions, political revolutions, religious revolutions etc.) that with a few exceptions (such as the great Judith Harris) the book won over skeptics and carried the day. Michael Shermer, Mr. Skepticism himself, said, for example, that Born to Rebel was "the most rigorously scientific work of history every written."

Two devastating studies of BTR, however, have just now been published in the September 2000 issue of Politics and the Life Sciences (alas this issue is not online, perhaps for reasons discussed below). After exhaustive efforts, the studies failed to replicate key results in BTR - that is the authors tried to replicate what Sulloway said he did, on the data that he said he used and they could not reproduce anything close to his results. Now, you may be asking, how it is that the September 2000 issue of PLS has only now been published? And therein lies a story.

When Politics and the Life Sciences decided to publish the initial critique of BTR by Frederic Townsend, after peer review by four referees, it invited Sulloway to respond along with a number of others in a roundtable format that they had used in previous debates. Sulloway was guaranteed ample room to respond to Townsend and was invited to submit his own names for roundtable participants. He initially agreed but shortly thereafter he wrote to Gary Johnson, the editor of the journal, threatening that if the critique were published he would sue both the journal and the editor personally for what he considered to be defamation.

I suggest reading the rest of Tabarrok's post. I'll just add that I find it amazing that individuals can be so brazenly dishonest, publishers can be so cowardly, and the American legal system so open to abuse that this sort of intimidatory behavior can be used to effectively stifle criticism.

NB - On an entirely different note, this post by Tyler Cowen on this study of health outcomes in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe points to some interesting conclusions, perhaps the most notable of which is that "capitalism" per se is not to blame for Russia's decline in life expectancy - contrary to the arguments of many on the far left. This ought to have been obvious a long time ago, had anyone previously bothered to compare Russian health outcomes with those in states like Poland and the Czech Republic.