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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
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Professor Wasn’t Defamed by ‘Freakonomics’ Author

(CN) - A co-author of the popular book "Freakonomics" did not defame a professor by rejecting his theory that crime drops when more people carry guns, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Economist Steven D. Levitt, who wrote "Freakonomics" with co-author Stephen Dubner, dedicated one paragraph of the 200-page book to John Lott's theory, in a chapter exploring the precipitous drop in crime rates in the 1990s.

Lott had written a book called "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws."

Levitt wrote that Lott became a "lightning rod for gun controversy" and took to defending his theory on the Internet using the pseudonym "Mary Rosh." Levitt also noted "the troubling allegation that Lott actually invented some of the survey data that supports his more-guns/less-crime theory."

He added: "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 his results, they found that right-to-carry laws simply don't bring down crime."

Lott claimed the attack on his research smeared his reputation as a scholar. Others have been able to replicate his work, he insisted, and the assertion that they hadn't implied that he had fabricated his findings. He also alleged defamation over an email exchange between Levitt and another economist, "in which Levitt accused Lott of buying support for his theory by paying for the publication of a journal filled only with non-peer refereed articles that bolstered his hypothesis," the ruling states.

The lower court dismissed Lott's defamation claim against Levitt and HarperCollins under Illinois law, but allowed him to sue Levitt over the email exchange.

Seven months later, the parties settled the email claim, and Lott hired a new attorney who urged the court to reconsider its dismissal of the defamation claim.

In that motion, Lott argued that the court should have applied Virginia law instead of Illinois law. The lower court rejected his request, and the federal appeals court in Chicago affirmed.

"Lott is not entitled to get a free peek at how his dispute will shake out under Illinois law and, when things don't go his way, ask for a mulligan under the laws of a different jurisdiction," Judge Evans wrote.

"The time for Lott to ask for the application of Virginia law had passed - the train had left the station," Evans added.

The court upheld dismissal of Lott's defamation claim, saying readers could interpret the disputed paragraph as a "critique on his theory, rather than an accusation of falsifying data."

"Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything" was published in 2005 and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. It takes an economist's approach to everything from the structure of the crack cocaine industry to the socioeconomic forces behind children's names.

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