297 of 323 people found the following review helpful
Steven Levitt, an economist at U Chicago, is less interested in numbers and more interested in why people turn out the way they do. He examines the influence of incentive, heredity, the neighborhood you grew up in, etc.
Some of his conclusions are less than earth-shattering. For example, African-American names (DeShawn, Latanya) don't influence African-American test performance. As a second example, Levitt compiled data regarding online dating websites and concluded that bald men and overweight women fared badly. Not rocket science.
However, Levitt livens up the book with some controversial discussions. He believes that the dramatic drop in crime in the 1990s can be traced to Roe v. Wade. He thinks that the children who would have committed crimes (due to being brought up by impoverished, teenage, single mothers) are simply not being born as often.
He also writes about the man who more or less singlehandedly contributed to the KKK's demise by infiltrating their group and leaking their secret passwords and rituals to the people behind the Superman comic book (Superman needed a new enemy).
Interestingly, he also discusses how overbearing parents don't contribute to a child's success. For example, having a lot of books in the house has a positive influence on children's test scores, but reading to a child a lot has no effect. Highly educated parents are also a plus, while limiting children's television time is irrelevant. Similarly, political candidates who have a lot of money to finance their campaigns are still out of luck if no one likes them.
In the chapter entitled "Why Drug Dealers Live With Their Mothers," Levitt explores the economics of drug dealing. An Indian, Harvard-affiliated scholar decided to get up close and personal with crack gangs and got some notebooks documenting their finances. Levitt concludes that drug dealers' empires are a lot like McDonald's or the publishing industry in Manhattan - only the people on the very top of the pyramid do well financially, while the burger flippers, editorial assistants, and low-level drug runners don't (indeed, some of them work for free, or in return for protection!)
Overall, this is a lively read, with some obvious conclusions and some not so obvious.
144 of 165 people found the following review helpful
This book succeeds at analyzing sociological developments in a way that is entertaining because Steven Levitt, an economist who strays from convention, has a knack for unpeeling layers and layers of assumptions and myth and showing the real causes behind trends. He shows, to name some examples, how our names affect our career paths; how abortion and the crime rate are related; how a man used his cunning to humiliate the Klu Klux Klan rather than rely on conventional methods; how easy it is to identify the role of public school teachers when they help their students cheat on standardized tests; why drug dealing is only lucrative for the dealers at the top of the pyramid; the myth that real estate agents are looking for our best interests.
The book, co-authored by Stephen J. Dubner, is breezy and anecdotal, which is an effective format for presenting a lot of sociological trends without being dry or losing the scintillating reportage in dense prose.
The lesson of this book is that we should be leery of trusting society's common assumptions or common wisdom. In other words, the book encourages us to keep our mind alert and break out of the mold in the way we see things. By looking at social trends with a fresh eye, the book succeeds at making economic trends a fun, adventurous endeavor.
If I were to criticize the book, it would be that it is too short. It's barely 200 pages and if you take out the blank chapter pages, the charts, the lists, and so on, it's really closer to 150 pages. Because the material is so current and topical, the method of "freakonomics" presented here would make a good format for a monthly magazine. My guess is that there will be many sequels.
591 of 700 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2006
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.
51 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2005
Depending on one's attachment to a mindset put forward by political correctness, this book is going to seem either full of stunning observations or light reading, with a few worthy surprises. There's some negative feedback on this site about the book being more a collection of articles, which is a legitimate complaint. At least they would be well-written articles.
Besides the easy and clear writing style, the main strengths of "Freakonomics" appears to be that much (if not all) of Levitt's observations come from research that is in peer-reviewed publications, and that the featured academic personalities (Levitt, Fryer and Venkatesh) are contemporary and working today. Thus, the primary sources of most of the material, as well as contemporary critics are around to defend or refute the discussion in this book.
The nice thing about many economists today is that they utilize the internet to spout off on many topics that would at first glance seem outside their field. The authors of this book, Cowen, Kling, Tabarrok and others have regularly-updated blogs. Levitt is therefore certainly not unique in applying economic "tools" to a variety of contexts, but he takes advantage of the internet himself to defend this book.
An obvious flaw of "Freakonomics" is how it heaps praise on one of the authors between the chapters. This ridiculous pap should have been left behind in the NY Times Magazine. Ignoring that, there's two other things that are seriously bothersome:
1.) The accusation of regular discrimination on "The Weakest Link," a game show. Yes, there is a paper referenced, but some presentation of data would have been useful in the book. I wonder why the details were omitted in this case and presented in all the other subsections of this chapter. My primary reaction to this statement was strong skepticism. Apparently, one needs a subscription to "The Journal of Law & Economics" to know the sample sizes involved. More details would have been nice to see, because Levitt/Dubner go on to point the discrimination finger at other groups, using collected data to show people's actions betraying their declared intentions. What patterns do the data need to show in order to signal discrimination? In the case of "The Weakest Link," most readers will never get to find out.
2.) Exclusion of Thomas Sowell. I recognize that this is a popular science book, and not a scientific book that's popular, but the elephant in the room is clearly the complete absence of the work of Thomas Sowell. Not only is Sowell a contemporary economist who has researched and published extensively on race, culture and incentives, but for many people he has already accomplished what "Freakonomics" attempts to do: introduce people to economics by viewing current social problems in the context of incentives. Sowell's "Basic Economics" and "Advanced Economics" are both clear and non-quanitative books that exploit economic thinking in a way superior to "Freakonomics." I also recommend his "Affirmative Action Around the World" and "Cultures" series.
"Freakonomics" is a nice little read, and most people who pick it up and read it will likely enjoy it. Be sure to check out the website.
105 of 124 people found the following review helpful
Having myself survived the economics program at the University of Chicago as a young graduate student twenty years ago, I know how decidedly eccentric their laurelled scholars can be. One of the most prestigious of the current crop there, Steven D. Levitt, along with journalist Stephen J. Dubner, has written a most intriguing and mind-bending book that uses Chicago-style econometric approaches and applies those to social and political issues that otherwise seem mundane and have no apparent basis in coherent theory which would support the behavior under study. In fact, this book of compelling case studies bears similarities to the approach taken by author Malcolm Gladwell in his recent best-selling book, "The Tipping Point", where he takes primarily historical events and analyzes them almost anecdotally as exercises in human behavior, in his case, making connections and how ideas become trends not by gradual insinuation but by a singular dramatic moment.
But Levitt's canvas is broader, his theories and findings are far more diverse, and his approach is far more quantitative in nature. For example, he challenges the perception that campaign spending determines elections. Levitt's analysis takes a fresh look by contrasting races in which the same two congressional candidates run repeatedly against each other. What he concludes is that a winning candidate can spend half as much as before and lose only one percent of the vote, while a losing candidate who doubles campaign spending picks up only one percent more. Basically they prove that no matter how much candidates spend on their campaigns, the results would not be marginally affected. In another example, the authors describe a seller's real estate agent, who lives on commission and has an incentive to sell a listed home for maximum dollar. Again, this is a misconception since the authors contend the small financial reward to an agent who sells a home for a few thousand more dollars is dwarfed by the greater money to be made by selling properties for less but quicker. Levitt's research into the sale of one hundred thousand Chicago homes found that agents keep their own homes on the market an average of ten days longer and sell them for more than three percent more than the homes they list and sell for clients.
The penetrating analyses provided by Levitt appear to have no bounds as he identifies Chicago teachers, who were proven to be changing their students' test answers and ultimately fired for their actions; sumo wrestlers who were found to be cheating as well; and even the alternative and more lucrative career options that crack dealers may have at McDonald's versus making sales. He even questions the impact of a good first name in a person's later life and if children become more literate if their parents read to them. The conclusions surprised me as they will you. But the most compelling study he presents is related to the impact of Roe vs. Wade. In a study he conducted with Stanford law Professor John Donohue, Levitt makes a seemingly broad-stroked conclusion in attributing much of the drop in the U.S. crime rate to legalized abortion. Their argument was based on the theory that abortion prevented the births of unwanted children who otherwise would have been statistically more likely to mature into criminals. The crime rate drop coincided with the time those aborted pregnancies would otherwise have hit their teen years, and the trend showed up earlier in states such as California that were the first to enact more liberal access to abortions. Through the data they gather, the correlation is startling, and the conclusion is hard to refute despite the naysayers who felt the stuffy to be politically motivated. But to Levitt's academically inclined credit, he never seems like he has an ideological agenda as he lets the numbers do the talking for him. His genius is to take those seemingly meaningless sets of numbers, ferret out the telltale pattern and recognize what it all means. A brilliant mind is at work, as he takes the most mundane open-ended questions and actually answers them. Strongly recommended.
298 of 363 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2005
I expected much more from this book, including some actual economic theory and discussion of what separates insightful research from background noise. The only thought-provoking piece in this motley collection of entertaining (to some) factoids is the one about abortion being the cause of declining crime. Beyond that, everything the book touches is either mundane or rehashed from somewhere else, primarily the New York Times article by co-author Dubner.
A main premise in the book is that asking the right questions in life is important. It then proceeds to ask almost none of them. For instance, what do sumo wrestlers and teachers have in common? I guess the headline itself is good for a snicker, but then we assume that it will move on to discover some heretofore hidden connection of value to us. Don't get your hopes up. Instead, after pages of unnecessary background on educational competence testing, it is revealed that - no! - teachers have cheated to boost their students' scores. What's more, shhh, occasionally sumo wrestlers have cheated to improve a friend's ranking by letting him win. Again, shocking? Not at all. Both of these revelations have been explored before and cheating doesn't expose any commonality between teachers and sumo wrestlers that doesn't stem from both groups being merely human. People cheat. Teachers and sumo wresters are people. Therefore, they both cheat and that's what they have in common. Some groundbreaking research, eh? The authors could just as easily have chosen any arbitrary group of people, found a human trait, and then shown how both groups exhibit it. For instance, what do umbrella sellers and plumbers have in common? Both take advantage of urgent situations to charge higher prices. What do Balinese dancers and corporate lawyers have in common? Both eat smaller lunches during busy seasons.
This book's subtitle is, "A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything". A more appropriate one would have been, "An Ordinary Economist Ponders Too Long About the Widely Known Side of a Few Unimportant Subjects". Randomly put together, I might add, and that's another annoying point. The book has almost no organization whatsoever. Rather than taking the time to organize the book into a logical manner, the authors joke about it being a disorganized collection of points and claim that as proof of their rogue status. If that's rogue, I'll take conventional any day.
It's clear that these authors are intelligent men who probably have something worthwhile to write. Unfortunately, they didn't write it in this book. The "Freak" in Freakonomics is supposed to refer to offbeat analysis or an original perspective. Instead it refers to the strange fact that, so often in publishing, what's of lasting value goes out of print and what's fleetingly entertaining climbs the charts.
You would do well to skip this one.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2005
Just as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith is credited with coining the term, "conventional wisdom," and elevating it to the level of a concept; Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner can be credited with their counter-intuitive findings as being the champions of "unconventional wisdom."
This book has no unifying theme nor does it really have a beginning or an ending. It is really a series of vignettes, a "treasure hunt", as the authors say, in which they "follow whatever freakish curiousities that may occur" to them. The chapter titles are all in the form of questions and illustrate the disjointedness of the topics. If there is a common thread that runs through the entire book it would have to be the question of what motivates people. Freakonomics, if it is anything, it is the study of incentives.
Levitt and Dubner ask the question, "What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?" The answer is that incentives that were intended for these groups to perform better actually caused them to cheat. Standardizd testing, which was designed to hold schools accountable for their students' performance, has unintentionally driven teachers to "assist" the students in getting better test scores. Likewise in sumo wrestling, contestants must win 8 of 15 matches in order to advance to the finals. In this close-knit group, contestants who already have 8 victories will let their opponent with 7 victories win so they can both advance. In return, the wrestler who conceded the match will expect the same favor in return in the finals.
"Why Do Crack Dealers Live With Their Mom?" ask our freakonomists. The short answer is that they can't afford to move out of the house. The long answer is that an economist spent four years embedded in a Chicago crack gang trying to understand their business model. This economist produced an organizational chart of the gang and reconstructed four years worth of profit and loss statements. The statements showed that the lowest member of a crack gang earned about $3.30 an hour.
"How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?" Their freakish answer is that both groups derive their power from hoarding information. What? I can see how real-estate agents hoard the information that is necessary to do a deal, but the Klan? The Klan does not gain power from hiding information, they hide information to protect themselves. Their power comes from their ability to instill hatred in their members. Whatever secrets the Klan leaders may have, they do not affect the attitudes of their members.
Another controversial theory that Levitt and Dubner put forth is that states that have legalized abortions have shown a decrease in crime rates (New York and California). They found that most of the women that were getting abortions were poor and single, precisely the group most likely to raise children that become criminals. Levitt and Dubner fail to mention that incidents of homicide by perpetrators in age groups too old to have been affected by legalized abortion declined faster than homicides by younger perpetrators. Obviously there are questions about the methods and conclusions of freakonomics.
"Freakonomics" is an enjoyable and easy read, perhaps a little too easy. Although they ask very unconventional questions and find many hidden reasons for why things are what they are, they failed to take into account many of the statistical exceptions to their theories, in which case they do not even rise to the level of the dismal science.
40 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2005
Steven Levitt has a remarkable gift for using the tools of traditional economics to illuminate completely un-traditional problems. While some of the topics covered in FREAKONOMICS are loosely connected to business (the chapter on crack gangs is especially interesting in this regard), the real delight of this book is the light it sheds on issues that many of us have perhaps thought about but never considered rigorously: What effect does a kid's name have on his or her future? Do teachers graded on how well they prepare kids to take tests cheat? What accounts for the precipitous decline in crime in the U.S. in the 1990s? Levitt's answers are not always perfect or completely provable, but they are always intriguing.
The book is not perfect: the prose is sometimes too glib, and the authors occasionally embark on digressions that aren't really all that compelling. Nor should you expect a coherent through-line to the book: the only real connection between the various subjects is that Levitt worked on them. But in the end this doesn't really take away from the pleasure of reading the book. It's enormously enjoyable, as well as being provocative. If you like counterintuitive thinking like Malcolm Gladwell's THE TIPPING POINT or James Surowiecki's THE WISDOM OF CROWDS, you're pretty much guaranteed to love this.
56 of 66 people found the following review helpful
This is a fun book with a great title and catchy cover art. The authors admit that the book does not have a central theme, but like a freak show it wanders from a curiosity to something amazing to the unexpected. The difference here is that it is a display of freaky things revealed by economic analysis. The word economics gets used so carelessly that it is not well understood by most people. Possibly the only word more loosely defined is the list of people calling themselves economists. Since it is not a defined profession, almost anyone can call himself (or herself) an economist, and too many do.
By any measure, Steven Levitt, is an economist. He has the academic credentials, academic publications, and actually teaches economics at the prestigious University of Chicago. His co-author, Stephen Dubner, is a journalist from New York who presumably helped smooth Levitt's ideas and observations into generalist reader prose. This is a book that is fairly easy to read even for someone with the barest exposure to economics. For the purposes of this book, economics is how people make choices in their behavior in the face of incentives and disincentives of various sorts.
Levitt makes a big deal out of his not being an econometrician (an economist who expresses his ideas in higher mathematics rather than words and whose research can tend to be studying mathematical behavior rather than flesh and blood human beings). The old econometrician joke goes like this. There were three econometricians out deer hunting and they see a big buck. The first aims and fires, but his shot is five yards left of the deer. The second shoots, but his shot if five yards right of the deer. The third starts walking towards the deer and his companions ask him why he was not shooting at the deer. He replied, that on average they were dead center, so they must have killed the deer. You get the idea.
This book shows us the author's views on why drug dealers live with their mothers despite the popular notion that they make a lot of money, why a swimming pool is much more dangerous than a gun, how Roe v. Wade may have impacted the crime rate favorably and is still an inefficient tradeoff in fighting crime, how teachers and sumo wrestlers cheat in response to incentives and how to catch them (very interesting, actually), how and why we know there were never 3,000,000 homeless as Mitch Snyder claimed, and how much do parents really matter (by far the least convincing part of the book).
While this is an entertaining read, and I hope it will spark some young people (and not so young adults) to want to study and read more about economics, I took a full star off because the book too often denigrates mathematical analysis as boring and as if it were unnecessary. Levitt makes a point that he is an economist, but is not all that good at math. Well, since his papers and this book make constant reference to regression (a statistical method), which is a form of applied math, either he or his co-authors had to know something about mathematics and statistics. More than that, his argument with anecdote and sharp observation, while entertaining, is not in itself conclusive. Proof usually is only granted when all debate is overwhelmed by hard mathematical evidence and analysis. Without the math, the author is simply arguing from authority. That is, I am a big deal authority with a bunch of awards so listen to what I am saying because I know more than you. Well, that may cut it in the popular press, but it is not science and, in a way, undermines the purpose of a book like this. The book provides you ways of challenging the kind of authority the author is using to assert his observations.
That caveat aside, this is an entertaining read that can open up some new ways of thinking about everyday events and provide some techniques to enable the reader to go a bit deeper when faced with news stories proclaiming one absurd thing or another.
186 of 228 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2006
I know this review will be barraged with "unhelpful" votes from the fans for writing something negative, but so be it. This book is cute and fun to read, which would make me give it three stars, except that it scares me how many people think that Levitt practices actual science and that his conclusions are valid. Read this book for its fun and humour value, but please take all conclusions with a hefty grain of salt.
It says on the cover that this book has been used as student literature for economics courses. This is interesting, since a friend of mine is an economics professor and she does indeed recommend this book to students - as the perfect example of how people lie with statistics.
Levitt demonstrates beautifully how one can come to false conclusions by seeing correlation and assuming cause. If you don't know what I mean, let me explain: Ice cream and rape are correlated. When ice cream sales go up, so does rape. With the kind of reasoning Levitt uses, this is solid proof that ice cream is a cause of rape. The truth is that hot weather increases both. Levitt cautions against assuming cause out of correlation in the beginning, then spends the entire rest of the book doing just that. It amazes me how little research he has done. An introductory biology textbook will tell you that his conclusions about genetics and intelligence are false, but he states it as fact after finding some economical correlation.