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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything Paperback – August 25, 2009
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“Provocative… eye-popping.” (New York Times Book Review: Inside the List)
“The guy is interesting!” (Washington Post Book World)
“The funkiest study of statistical mechanics ever by a world-renowned economist... Eye-opening and sometimes eye-popping” (Entertainment Weekly)
“Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America... Prepare to be dazzled.” (Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point)
“Principles of economics are used to examine daily life in this fun read.” (People: Great Reads)
“Levitt dissects complex real-world phenomena, e.g. baby-naming patterns and Sumo wrestling, with an economist’s laser.” (San Diego Union-Tribune)
“Levitt is a number cruncher extraordinaire.” (Philadelphia Daily News)
“Levitt is one of the most notorious economists of our age.” (Financial Times)
“Hard to resist.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“Freakonomics is politically incorrect in the best, most essential way.... This is bracing fun of the highest order.” (Kurt Andersen, host of public radio's Studio 360 and author of Turn of the Century)
“Freakonomics was the ‘It’ book of 2005.” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
“An eye-opening, and most interesting, approach to the world.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“An unconventional economist defies conventional wisdom.” (Associated Press)
“A showcase for Levitt’s intriguing explorations into a number of disparate topics…. There’s plenty of fun to be had.” (Salon.com)
“One of the decade’s most intelligent and provocative books.” (The Daily Standard)
“Freakonomics challenges conventional wisdom and makes for fun reading.” (Book Sense Picks and Notables)
“The trivia alone is worth the cover price.” (New York Times Book Review)
“An easy, funny read. Many unsolvable problems the Americans have could be solved with simple means.” (Business World)
“Economics is not widely considered to be one of the sexier sciences.... Steven D. Levitt will change some minds.” (Amazon.com)
From the Back Cover
More Than 4 Million Copies Sold Worldwide
Published in 35 Languages
Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?
What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?
How much do parents really matter?
These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to parenting and sports—and reaches conclusions that turn conventional wisdom on its head. Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They set out to explore the inner workings of a crack gang, the truth about real estate agents, the secrets of the Ku Klux Klan, and much more. Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, they 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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.