Freakonomics – Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime?
These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much heralded scholar who studies the stuff and riddles of everyday life-;from cheating and crime to sports and child rearing-;and whose conclusions regularly turn the conventional wisdom on its head. He usually begins with a mountain of data and a simple, unasked question. Some of these questions concern life-and-death issues; others have an admittedly freakish quality. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: freakonomics.
Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives-;how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. In Freakonomics, they set out to explore the hidden side of … well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The myths of campaign finance. The telltale marks of a cheating schoolteacher. The secrets of the Ku Klux Klan.
What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and-;if the right questions are asked-;is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Steven Levitt, through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, shows how to see through all the clutter.
Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.
Economics is not widely considered to be one of the sexier sciences. The annual Nobel Prize winner in that field never receives as much publicity as his or her compatriots in peace, literature, or physics. But if such slights are based on the notion that economics is dull, or that economists are concerned only with finance itself, Steven D. Levitt will change some minds. In Freakonomics (written with Stephen J. Dubner), Levitt argues that many apparent mysteries of everyday life don’t need to be so mysterious: they could be illuminated and made even more fascinating by asking the right questions and drawing connections. For example, Levitt traces the drop in violent crime rates to a drop in violent criminals and, digging further, to the Roe v. Wade decision that preempted the existence of some people who would be born to poverty and hardship. Elsewhere, by analyzing data gathered from inner-city Chicago drug-dealing gangs, Levitt outlines a corporate structure much like McDonald’s, where the top bosses make great money while scores of underlings make something below minimum wage. And in a section that may alarm or relieve worried parents, Levitt argues that parenting methods don’t really matter much and that a backyard swimming pool is much more dangerous than a gun. These enlightening chapters are separated by effusive passages from Dubner’s 2003 profile of Levitt in The New York Times Magazine, which led to the book being written. In a book filled with bold logic, such back-patting veers Freakonomics, however briefly, away from what Levitt actually has to say. Although maybe there’s a good economic reason for that too, and we’re just not getting it yet. –John Moe
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Forget your image of an economist as a crusty professor worried about fluctuating interest rates: Levitt focuses his attention on more intimate real-world issues, like whether reading to your baby will make her a better student. Recognition by fellow economists as one of the best young minds in his field led to a profile in the New York Times, written by Dubner, and that original article serves as a broad outline for an expanded look at Levitt’s search for the hidden incentives behind all sorts of behavior. There isn’t really a grand theory of everything here, except perhaps the suggestion that self-styled experts have a vested interest in promoting conventional wisdom even when it’s wrong. Instead, Dubner and Levitt deconstruct everything from the organizational structure of drug-dealing gangs to baby-naming patterns. While some chapters might seem frivolous, others touch on more serious issues, including a detailed look at Levitt’s controversial linkage between the legalization of abortion and a reduced crime rate two decades later. Underlying all these research subjects is a belief that complex phenomena can be understood if we find the right perspective. Levitt has a knack for making that principle relevant to our daily lives, which could make this book a hit. Malcolm Gladwell blurbs that Levitt “has the most interesting mind in America,” an invitation Gladwell’s own substantial fan base will find hard to resist. 50-city radio campaign. (May 1)
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Review by By Lawrence Kwong
The scientific fidelity of social science is a topic of heated contention in academics. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have successfully brought this debate to the mainstream in the form of their joint book, Freakonomics. But do they make a strong case for validating statistical analyses of an infinitely complex human society?
As any statistician will tell you, one of the major pitfalls of their field is the confusion of correlation and causation. Just because X and Y have similar trends does not necessarily mean that X caused Y or that Y caused X. Numerous times throughout the book, Levitt and Dubner chastise various experts, pundits, and conventional wisdoms for failing to observe this basic tenet. Yet so tempting is this trap that the authors fall right in along with their targets.
Take, for example, the chapter on parenting. A full six paragraphs are devoted to warning about correlation versus causation, the caution of which is thrown immediately to the wind with a set of highly dubious stabs at the causes of various correlations regarding parenting. The data in question comes from Levitt’s regression analysis of numerous factors which conventional wisdom believes may play some role in the academic outcome of children. So, for example, correlations were found between a child’s test scores and the number of books the parents have in their house, but not how often the parents read to the child. So far, so good. The authors then conclude from similar datapoints that it is the nature of the parents’ lives that influence a child’s scores, not what the parents do. Granted, it has a certain logical appeal, but it amounts to no more than an educated guess. What’s wrong with that? you may ask.
The problems with this example illustrate some of the major difficulties associated with social science. What you may notice about the correlations is that – by necessity – they lack a certain level of detail. What *kind* of books to the parents have? What kind do they read to their child? How often does a child actually pick up one of numerous books? These are questions for which there are few or no practical solutions. The reasons are manifold, including: the number of data points may never be enough (consider how many categories you may have to break predominating book types into: comic books, encyclopedias, TV trivia, etc.); you never know which test subject is lying, exaggerating, or remembering incorrectly; and you can never be sure that test scores are the right thing to measure.
This last difficulty is made more extreme when you consider the following quote from Freakonomics: “Sorry. Culture cramming may be a foundational belief of obsessive parenting, but the ECLS data show no correlation between museum visits and test scores.” There should be little surprise at the lack of correlation: there are very few things that a museum offers that would help on the SATs or state exams. But that doesn’t mean that museum visits have no positive impact on the intelligence of a child. The authors make the mistake of equating test scores to intelligence. It may very well be true that a child that goes to museums will score no better on entrance exams than a child that doesn’t, but it may affect which hobbies they take up, their job performance, and various other important aspects of life that have little or nothing to do with measurable intelligence.
Similar errors in thinking occur throughout the book. In the bagel-seller example, statistics are carelessly and bizarrely used to justify a stance on morality. Because only 13% of people failed to pay for bagels when left out with a payment box, the authors conclude that the majority – in fact, 87% – of people have an innate honesty. I was floored by this kind of uncritical thinking. People may have paid out of fear of getting caught or out of guilt, but not necessarily out of honesty. But more so than that, honesty in one small area of life does not an honest man make. If Dubner and Levitt wanted to conclude simply that statistics is useful for understanding human motivation, that would be fine. But to make sweeping generalizations about whether humans are born innately good or innately bad on a single study is simply irresponsible.
The only positive thing to say about Freakonomics is that it makes you think. But any controversial book can do that. Though there are some fairly solid examples in the book such as regards the real estate agents, the sumo wrestlers, and the cheating teachers, overall the book is uncritical of its own thinking. It would be fine if Levitt and Dubner acknowledged that there may be other interpretations at least as good as their own, but they choose instead to pontificate their own views, in flagrant violation of their professed objectivism. And oddly enough, I happen to agree with most of their views, just not with how they reached them. Levitt is clearly a brilliant man, and I hope he continues to churn out interesting statistical correlations on unusual subjects… but he and Dubner ought to leave the interpretations to others.
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