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561 of 662 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars An uncritical book, January 10, 2006
This review is from: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Hardcover)
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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Tracked by 7 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 29 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 8, 2010 7:15:38 AM PST
R. SELIG says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Sep 2, 2010 1:06:40 AM PDT
J. Romeo says:
I was wondering how you came to the conclusion that Levitt and Dubner have an "extreme dislike for blacks and hispanics"? Or even where they call for "unlimited abortion rights for poor, minority women"?

Posted on Sep 2, 2010 9:01:29 AM PDT
Surely Lawrence hadn't read the book as many times as he seemed to be. Many points he pointed out there have been cleared first by the authors. I mean, like when he said their point in correlation between museum visit and intelligence contain a big hole. Well, the authors had said before that the easiest to measure (thus they took it as an example) is the test scores. So the conclusion they take is still consistent with their first premise.

Last, like many reviews I've read here, many couldn't separate textbook and popular book. I believe only a handful of them are economists or even had take a course in it before. While they exert their questionable knowledge and feeling of a hurt scholar, they showed their blindness on the subject. Well, just realize man, this book is for the moms and dads and nannys and you and me and others. If you'd prefer a more serious textbook that serve you 'till you drop, there's plenty of them on the library. But in fact, not this.

Posted on Sep 2, 2010 9:01:32 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Oct 1, 2010 3:24:08 PM PDT
Sorry Paul, I'd love to be on your side about this, but popular science books still have to be based on good science (you don't have to be an economist to see the flaws in the book's logic). Unfortunately, the authors did not "clear" anything enough for casual readers of the book. Just look at all the positive reviews. Very many people really did take away from the book the lesson that "culture cramming" is useless for kids. It's the wrong conclusion, based on faulty reasoning, and it's completely understandable why people might believe it, given the language the authors use in drawing their conclusions. The authors have to take responsibility for the fact that many moms and dads and nannys believe improperly-reasoned ideas - precisely because it's supposed to be serious academic stuff made easy to read. Popular science books don't get a pass just because they're not textbooks - they still have to be done with critical thinking.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 13, 2010 11:11:13 AM PDT
Brandy Mills says:
I wholeheartedly agree with you Lawrence. I found the book to be uncritical as well as unsubstantiated. In many places the phrase "research shows" or "research proves" appeared with absolutely no other reference to said "research." As the author points out in the section on prisons and crime, "research" also seemed to prove that releasing criminals from prisons would decrease crime. I found all of the "rogue economics" to be just that - fly by night conclusions drawn from pre-existing bias (and, yes, I did sense the racial condescension in the writing).

Overall I found the book to be a kind of "expert" ground-laying work for eugenics - similar to Pinker (who was also referenced within the book, albeit Pinker's work is a bit more substantiated), rife with racial bias and elitist if not almost fascist undertones and ideology.

Posted on Oct 21, 2010 8:22:57 PM PDT
Well said about Freakonomics. A disgrace to the authors, their university and the field of economics. Most people reading the book do not have the educational sophistication to evaluate their specious conclusions. Phyllis Barnum

Posted on Nov 16, 2010 8:33:33 PM PST
I was going to write a similar retort to Freakonomics, though probably one less concise and less thoughtful. I was also astounded by the profession against correlation = cause and then the sudden, jarring transition into exactly that kind of thinking. Also, the chopping up of variables ("have books in their house, "high test scores") to find meaning and trends. What disturbed me most was the chapter on abortion, which indirectly had several very racist, classist assumptions. I am pro-choice, don't get me wrong, but the analysis in Freakonimics is just astoundingly offensive.

At any rate, as a social scientist I thank you for your insightful review. This book was just as bad as Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" in its sweeping, unthoughtful generalizations.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 16, 2010 8:42:21 PM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 26, 2010 4:28:55 PM PST
What discrimination or dislike of Blacks and Hispanics are you talking about?
Throughout the book, the authors give examples of prominent black scientists (remember Ronadl G. Fryer Jr. ???) .
Where did you find that they suggest abortion in Black and Hispanic communities? They argue that mothers who decide to do abortion will be bad mothers anyways. Thus their children MIGHT become criminals.
Authors linked abortion to decrease in crime rates and the base for this is well explained.
As a statistician, I have not found anything wrong with Dr.Levitt's arguments.
Yes, there is correlation, causation and a lot of other stuff (sparse correlation, nonlinear relationship between variables and etc) , but if you follow authors argument ( listing main reason listed in press and then elimination them) there is NOTHING wrong with it.
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