John Lott sues Steven Levitt for libel

by Ted Frank on April 11, 2006

Not the soundest means of establishing academic credibility or resolving academic disagreements. (Michael Higgins, “Best-seller leads scholar to file lawsuit”, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 11) (h/t Slim). (Full disclosure: Lott was a former colleague of mine at AEI, and once gave me a ride home.)

Update, via Bill Barth, here is the registration-free Bloomberg account by Kevin Orland. The case is Lott v. Levitt, 06-CV-2007 (N.D. Ill.) (Castillo, J.).

Second update: we have a copy of the complaint. See after the jump.

I have uploaded a copy of the complaint to Overlawyered.

The lawsuit may come down to the allegation in paragraph 13 whether the phrase “replicate Lott’s results” has an “objective and factual meaning.” Levitt will either try to persuade a court (or, if necessary, a jury) that “replicate” was used in its lay sense, rather than the technical sense—or he may attempt to defend himself on the technical grounds. (Ayres & Donohue paper (and here); Lott’s response to Ayres and Donohue; Plassmann/Whitley response to Ayres/Donohuse.)

Hit & Run comments.


1 Bill Barth 04.11.06 at 6:36 pm

Wow! This here intarnets sure are connectified!

2 The Unknown Professor 04.11.06 at 9:27 pm

I’ve enjoyed Lott’s work for years, but he often seems to be a bit “tone deaf” as to how he comes off. This is a perfect example – I think suing someone over a claim like this is like trying to teach the proverbial pig how to sing – you accomplish nothing, expend a lot of energy, and everyone (you and the pig) gets annoyed.

Hopefully I won’t get sued over this comment…

3 Deltoid 04.12.06 at 12:10 pm

Lott Lawsuit: around the blogs

Ted Frank has your must read blog post on Lott’s lawsuit against Levitt. He has a copy of the complaint and an explanation from Lott: When a book sells well over a million copies this goes beyond a mere…

4 Deoxy 04.12.06 at 3:42 pm

I think it depends on the situation. If the media carries water for your foes and allows them to simply lie repeatedly until pople begin to believe it, I don’t see much other choice.

That is certainly the case with Lott, at least, much of the time. The case in question seems fairly straight forward, actually.

It’s not about “establishing academic credibility or resolving academic disagreements.” It’s about getting the other side to actually have to ENGAGE in academic discussion at all, instead of just dishonestly blowing him off (repeatedly). It might also be about putting certain lies to rest by way of having a legal judgement against them (which would make repeating them a slam-dunk libel case).

I’m not necessarily saying Lott is right, by the way, only that he hasn’t been honestly refuted (that I’v seen), because his critics don’t honestly attempt to refute him (again, that I’ve seen). When that happens repeatedly, it does tend to make one think they don’t HAVE an honest refutation…

5 Ted 04.12.06 at 9:31 pm

Regardless of how fair Lott has been treated by the media and by his critics, I can’t imagine that litigiousness is a quality that makes one more likely to be able to engage in academic discussion.

It’s also hard for me to imagine a scenario, win or lose, where John Lott wakes up on April 10, 2009, and says to himself “I’m better off because I brought this lawsuit three years ago.” At best it’s Pyrrhic, and at worst, it’s affirmatively self-destructive.

6 Zaoem 04.13.06 at 10:37 am

It seems like Lott’s case rests on a view that replication is simply an exercise in evaluating whether there are errors in someone’s code. That is not a generally accepted view of what replication in the social sciences is. For more, see Gary King’s web-site:

7 Deoxy 04.13.06 at 11:02 am

How if ir phyrrhic if he can have the court state that certain (very common) statements about him are libel? The only way this makes sense (which, admittedly, it might not – I agree on the “tone deaf” comment above) is if the point is to get a legal judgemnt against specific and common lies put forth against him.

Exmaple(a bit over simplified and taking Lott’s perspective, just to make the point): Let’s say that a group of lawyers decide they don’t have any good answers to the questions raised by your site, but they still want to shut you down. Everytime you come up (or some question comes up which sounds like something you might have inspired), they say that you’re just a paid PR opperation for big insurance companies, and that you made stuff up for your site. And the media begins carrying that as well. That becomes your standard moniker. You can claim all you want (with whateverproof you want) that you aren’t employed by inurance companies, etc, etc, but that is still how you are described publicly by the majority of people. It have become “common knowledge”.

What would you do in that example? If that particular slander against you isn’t compelling, I’m sure you’re able to replace it with one that is.

The only legal recourse you have in such a situation is a lawsuit, sad as that may be. And, hopefully, you would only have to sue one or two people, assuming you won, as a clear judgement handed down on the issue (“Saying that Ted is making stuff up for his web site is untrue and libelous.”) would pretty well make future statements of that fact (espcially if you take th time to INFORM certain people of said judgment) very legally precarious.

In other words, this is the only way to get the truth out sometimes. Pathetic, yes. A lousy solution? Yes. But th only one I know of.

Now, that’s all assuming that Lott is on th up-and-up, which I don’t know for sure. I’m just judging by the responses of his critics, which (in my limited experience) is basically ad hominem and/or outright lies.

8 Ted 04.13.06 at 1:43 pm

As a matter of fact, a number of anonymous posters have falsely claimed that Walter and I are paid by insurance companies. The solution to that is speech denying it, and, so far, the truth has won out.

The only thing we could do by suing is to harass an individual defendant. Our suing doesn’t prevent other people from mentioning the false claim; even our winning doesn’t prevent other people from repeating the false claim, because we don’t get to use the first trial’s results in the second trial.

Meanwhile, Lott will spend a substantial part of the next few years dealing with attorneys instead of with research, research that would do more to improve his standing than any successful court determination could. (It’s far from clear to me that Lott could get the determination he seeks; while the email libel is cut-and-dried, the damages there are nominal, and Levitt has a decent argument that Lott’s definition of “replicate” is narrower than is commonly understood.) And Lott’s enemies have to be salivating over the possibility of deposing Lott on a variety of controversial issues that are relevant to the question of his academic reputation.

9 Deoxy 04.14.06 at 9:35 am

“The solution to that is speech denying it, and, so far, the truth has won out.”

And there’s the difference. Lott has put up with this crap for years, and the truth has not won out.

I’m not saying that this is necessarily a good choice, but he didn’t resort to this quickly: how many years has he been putting up with this crap?

But some of the points you make would chang my weighting of the options. Not being able to use the first trial’s results in the second, for instance… let’s say I notified someone that the claims about me they had made in the past were shown to be libelous in a court of law, and I warned them that if they repeated said claims, I would take legal action against them. Even then, such a previous suit is non-admissable?

10 Ted 04.14.06 at 9:47 am

The letter would be admissible to attempt to prove malice, but the previous suit wouldn’t be proof of the falsity of the claim. One has to prove that all over again. (Exception: if a plaintiff loses this suit on grounds that the statement isn’t false, he’s collaterally estopped from another libel suit on the same statement against a different defendant.)

11 Tim Lambert 04.14.06 at 2:21 pm

Ted, your post used to contain a quote from Lott. Now it doesn’t. Please explain.

Deoxy, Levitt can make a very strong case that 1 he didn’t accuse Lott of fraud and 2 that in any case Lott is guilty of fraud.

12 Ted 04.14.06 at 2:30 pm

John and I had a misunderstanding over whether his email was intended to be public; he politely asked me to remove the email from the post; I did so. It’s the same courtesy I’d extend anyone else who had the same misunderstanding.

13 Overlawyered 04.18.06 at 10:39 pm

Lott v. Levitt II

I appear to have been too generous to Lott’s complaint when I first criticized it. William Ford, a Bigelow teacher at University of Chicago Law, has posted a devastating two-part analysis (via Wright) of the…

14 Overlawyered 04.19.06 at 11:52 pm

Lott v. Levitt III

A commenter writes: “In the context of refereed economics journals, ‘replicate’ has one meaning only: The use of an author’s data and model to ensure that falsification of findings is not an issue.” Is this…

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