Saturday, March 22, 2008

Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Levitt and Dubner repeatedly say that this book does not have a "theme". And in the sense that Blink or The Tipping Point have themes, they are right. But it does have a fundamental focus: on "conventional wisdom".

Levitt, as an economist, has made his name by asking different questions - like "do teachers cheat?" - and by finding ways to sort data to get the answers he is looking for. Dubner interviewed Levitt for a NYT article a while back and soon a collaboration was born - the collaboration that yielded this book. Both Levitt and Dubner appear to be good writers, as evidenced by the Freakonomics blog at, where both post individual as well as joint articles. I sense that the overall style of the book is more Dubner than Levitt, based on my seeing Dubner speak at Prosper Days (see my articles on Prosper Days at

In this book we find answers to a wide range of questions that few people would think to ask, about topics from sumo wrestlers to parenting. What does it have to do with economics? Simply that it has to do with how people get what they want - and how people can be encouraged to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing. The outline of the entire book can be found in Dubner's original article, which is included as part of the additional material in this book, along with selected blog posts and heavy-duty footnotes.

I for one really did want a bit more of a theme than this non-theme, but I do think the basic premise is sound and a good reason for people to read the book - it is important to question conventional wisdom. For example, at one point another economist read Levitt's original article on the relationship between abortion and the drop in crime, and he said (I'm paraphrasing), "I have read this over and over and I can't find anything wrong with it, but I still don't believe it.". This is how most of us are: we can be faced with incontrovertible evidence but we find it difficult to let go of what we have believed for so long.

No comments: