Freakonomics Obsession With Patents Strikes Again: Says If More Women Got Patents The Economy Would Grow

from the logical-leap dept

While the Freakonomics guys have shown a willingness in the past to be skeptical about the traditional claims concerning copyright, they often seem to have a blindness to similar criticisms of patents. In fact, in the Freakonomics book sequel Superfreakonomics, there's what's basically a puff piece about massive patent troll Intellectual Ventures. Thus it's disappointing, but not surprising, to hear that one of the Freakonomics duo, Stephen Dubner, is talking up some claims about how "closing the patent gap" between the number of patents that men get and women get (by basically convincing more women to patent stuff) could increase our GDP by a staggering 2.7%.

That's a huge leap, and a rather astounding claim. And you would think that these guys, who are so focused on trying to sniff out interesting points from data, wouldn't leap so blindly past a whole variety of questionable assumptions, including the big one: the assumption that there's a causal relationship between more patents and economic growth. Similarly, Dubner, in his radio piece, goes so far as to claim that patents are a reasonable proxy for innovation -- directly asserting that the fact that fewer women get patents means that women have "the most room for improvement in the innovation field."

To put it simply, that's ridiculous. Just because people aren't getting patents, it doesn't mean that they're not being innovative. In fact, multiple studies have shown absolutely no link between patents and innovation. It's a shame that Dubner would take the easy way out and leap to the false conclusion that patents are a reasonable proxy for innovation -- and, even worse, that he would then encourage an increasing rate of patenting, when one of the biggest problems facing the innovation sector today is over-patenting.

To be fair, Dubner is basing his report on some new research into the "patent gap" between men and women, which makes these particular claims (including the GDP growth claim). There is some interesting data in the paper showing just how few patents are given to women, but there are a bunch of questionable assumptions and logic leaps as well. Others have been pointing out some of the problems with the report, including new data showing that, based on the trendline, women are already increasing the rate at which they get patents very quickly. The bigger problem, though, is just the facile (and simply unsupportable) claim that more patents automatically leads to greater GDP. As economist Alex Tabarrok notes sarcastically in response:
Right; and since only 10% of construction workers are women, closing the gender gap would result in many more houses
This is a first year stats student type error, assuming this kind of causal relationship where none exists. The authors of the paper should have known better, but Dubner and the Freakonomics crew, who give this kind of work a stamp of approval, should be even more careful. Disappointing.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    E. Zachary Knight (profile), Apr 4th, 2012 @ 8:54am

    I find it interesting that anyone could consider gender to have such an impact on patents and innovation. Does it really matter if a woman files a patent when the patent is held by a faceless corporation?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Mike42 (profile), Apr 4th, 2012 @ 8:57am

    I heard this garbage on NPR and was immediately sick to my stomach. Why does the media continue to equate innovation with patents? It reminds me of a blog I read while investigating George Washington Carver, who only applied for one patent and then abandoned it because he wanted people to be able to use the things he invented. The author of the blog went on to say that Carver had not invented the things he had claimed to invent, and did patent searches to prove it.
    Stupid people make my brain bleed...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    :Lobo Santo (profile), Apr 4th, 2012 @ 8:59am

    Re: Face Gap

    Hmm, perhaps that's the issue! The face gap!

    We'll need to give faces to the corporations or remove faces from the inventors--equalling this out will lead to greater innovation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 4th, 2012 @ 9:13am

    Reading (or in this case, listening) is fundimental

    I listened to their podcast about this topic (I believe rebroadcast from NPR) a week or 3 ago and I'm not sure if the material was presented differently elsewhere, but if it was not, I'm shocked to hear people getting this out of what they presented there.

    On what I listened to, their whole point was that men were dominating patenting, which lead them to look at the positions women were getting in the workplace which lead them to not be the ones to do so, and take from there what happens when you have mixed genders in the workplace compared to actually segregating them, and the results from there (spoiler alert: women did better when men weren't around).

    At no point was the conclusion that patents were causing innovation or anything even remotely close to what's mentioned in the OP. So, either things were presented VERY differently in other places.....or this article is one giant attempt to troll.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 4th, 2012 @ 9:22am

    The mistake is one that is commonly made, which is taking data, and extrapolating in a way that it just doesn't work out.

    The most obvious points here is that there isn't 2.7% MORE patents that are going to just get issued because women ask for them. The assumption that the patent universe is like Mcdonalds burgers, that you can just order up some more is mindless. It doesn't begin to look at the reality of obtaining patents.

    After that, it all just falls down.

    Mike, I would say you should take this as a bit of a warning or caution in your own work and views. Some things just don't scale absolutely. You cannot ignore the whole of a system and how it works, and narrowly focus on one small part of it (marginal costs, as an example in industries with heavy up front costs). While you may be technically correct in the small area, your assumptions likely won't work out properly in a larger overall real world system.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Angelito (profile), Apr 4th, 2012 @ 9:29am


    There are 2 types of people:

    The ones that can extrapolate from insufficient data.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), Apr 4th, 2012 @ 10:34am

    "...the assumption that there's a causal relationship between more patents and economic growth."

    There is! It's an inverse squared relationship.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Bengie, Apr 4th, 2012 @ 10:44am


    Patents in and of themselves reduce the economy. The who argument about patents being good is how they "encourage" invention. If the invention is being created regardless of patents, then don't add them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    R. Ed Phully, Apr 4th, 2012 @ 11:19am

    Says: If More Women Got Patents The Economy Would Grow

    Same text also says: Arbeit Macht Frei

    I wish happy camping those who buy into what they say.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 4th, 2012 @ 11:20am


    I know why he's pressing this. Women, in general, are more open to sharing than men are.

    We come up with ideas, and spread them around.

    We don't go all "MINE, PATENT, MINE, SUE". We just share the info.

    He's thinking that if women get patents, then they will go around actin' a fool like the men are.

    Those darn women, they want everything for free...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    SkipM (profile), Apr 4th, 2012 @ 1:09pm

    Read Franklin

    All one has to do is read Ben Franklin's Autobiography and you'll discover his thoughts about patents:

    That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.

    We've really lost that message.

    The founding fathers didn't trust monopolies or anything in perpetuity either.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 4th, 2012 @ 2:35pm

    Re: Re:

    "I know why he's pressing this. Women, in general, are more open to sharing than men are. "

    That's what she said

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Yoshord, Apr 4th, 2012 @ 9:24pm


    I was fairly certain that, given the descriptions of the patents that are being granted, you could just order some more mindless patents whenever you wanted.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Androgynous Cowherd, Apr 4th, 2012 @ 11:35pm

    Freakonomics Obsession With Patents Strikes Again: Says If More Women Got Patents The Economy Would Grow

    If Pinocchio said that, his nose would grow.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    neralx, Apr 20th, 2012 @ 1:53am

    supporting women is a good thing

    There are trivial patents and those that are applied for by people who generally do it to try and hit paydirt for their innovation. I'd suggest the trivial also includes 'prospective' patents made in the hope that one day they will make a buck and patents that are done to block innovation in one or another direction. These latter types I'd propose are done by the 'corporations' while the former are pursued by us normal people after money and a bit of fame (includes folks working in corporations who are supportive of innovation). But at the end of the day, supporting women who strive for the innovation value is a good thing, for their personal wealth (good for GDP, right?) as much for general economic efficiency of continous productive effort improvement. I can say more and back it with some analysis but time is short...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
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