Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner William Morrow, 2005

This book applies statistics and independent reasoning to a wide range of topics - to "whatever freakish curiosities that may occur to us" - for the express purpose of making the reader "more skeptical of the conventional wisdom," so that he "may begin looking for hints as to how things aren't quite what they seem."

Although it is entertaining and highly readable, the book thus has a serious purpose. We live in part in an age of science and reason, but the fact looms large that much of what we "know" is in the form of shibboleths and half-truths. It should be the task of all objective scholars to question the unsupported assertions to seek the truth. Unfortunately, when a young economist like Steven Levitt sets out to do so, it is rare enough that his book takes on a celebratory air, as though he is doing (as he is) something unusual for an economist and social scientist.

Steven Levitt is on the economics faculty at the University of Chicago, and is a winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, "awarded every two years to the best American economist under forty." Because he has an aversion to the drudgery of book-writing, he has teamed up with a professional writer, Stephen J. Dubner; and it's a happy collaboration.

Here's an example of how the two make hard data and a questioning mentality into something fascinating and informative: "Compare the four hundred [children's] lives that a few swimming pool precautions might save to the number of lives saved by far noisier crusades: child-resistant packaging (an estimated fifty lives a year), flame-retardant pajamas (ten lives), keeping children away from airbags in cars (fewer than five young children a year have been killed by airbags since their introduction), and safety drawstrings on children's clothing (two lives)."

Levitt argues that economics is a science of measurement. It is important to know "what to measure and how to measure it." Probably the most significant application of this, one that can serve as a corrective to much meaningless work done within the social sciences today, is when the authors tell about a young sociologist who discovered that multiple choice survey questionnaires are laughed at when given to residents in African-American public housing projects, and that the best way really to find out what those residents are thinking and doing is to become "embedded" with them for a long period of time. The sociologist lived with a black drug gang for several years - and produced insights that could not be gotten any other way. The story of his experiences with the gang is itself worth the price of the book.

This is part of what is actually a pretty simple mind-set. Levitt stresses, as economists are wont to do, that incentives are pivotal to human behavior; and on this basis, he gives some chilling details about how "experts use information to serve their own agenda." He shows, for example, how a real estate sales agent selling a home has virtually no incentive to obtain top dollar for the seller the agent represents. The same truth-seeking cynicism is applied to cheating by some teachers within the Chicago Public Schools when they are desperate to have good student-performance results, and - oddly enough - to the consensual throwing of matches that occurs among sumo wrestlers in Japan. Other points Levitt emphasizes are that "correlations don't establish causation" (a truism often repeated and not infrequently violated) and that "the conventional wisdom is often wrong."

Levitt's statistical iconoclasm inevitably leads him (since he's an honest scholar) into some conclusions that are, at least mildly, not politically correct. …