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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Usually I don't give books with a title like Freakonomics a second look. With a horrid name like that they are probably not worth the effort. But following a link on Arts & Letters Daily about a couple of months ago I read a glowing review about this new book (it was not yet available at the time), which ended with the words: "one of the decade's most intelligent and provocative books". Well, that sounded like something worth reading, freakish title notwithstanding.

Worth reading? Yes. Intelligent? Maybe. Provocative? Hardly.

What Steven Levitt, a young economics professor from the University of Chicago, does, is ask some good questions about things happening in the world and then he plays around intelligently with numbers to see if he can come up with a good explanation for why these things happen. The "freakish" part comes from the fact that Levitt tries to find non-standard, sometimes counter-intuitive, explanations and back them with his number-crunching acrobatics. There is nothing provocative about this, only commonsense use of statistics backed by a bright skeptical mind that does not trust conventional wisdom.

The book contains numerous subjects to which a "freaky" answer is found by looking carefully at the numbers: Why do Sumo wrestlers cheat? Why do drug dealers still live at home? How much does the parent contribute to the development of the child? Why do real-estate agents sell your house for less than it is worth? For each of these questions Levitt proposes an answer and proceeds to show why the numbers prove his hypothesis.

Perhaps the best analysis in the book (and the most widely known by now) is the one dealing with the decline in crime in the United States during the late 1990s. After dismissing the common explanations for this decline - better police work, more policemen, economic welfare, etc. - Levitt suggests that the drop in crime is attributed to the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. The argument goes like this: criminals come from bad families and are mostly a result of unwanted pregnancies. The legalisation of abortion enabled many women from bad backgrounds to avoid giving birth to unwanted children. These "unborn children" would have entered their prime criminal years in the 1990s. Less problematic children around means less crime. Neat explanation, backed with numbers. (Needless to say, in the short time the book has been around, there have been numerous attacks on this theory).

The book is mostly intelligent and entertaining and provides a good read. But it has two flaws. Levitt's co-author, the journalist Stephen Dubner, sprinkled the book with excerpts from a piece he wrote in 2003 in The New York Times about Levitt. The endless praise about Levitt (did we mention he was young? and brilliant? and freaky?) seems a touch awkward in a book supposedly written by the very same person. The second flaw is one which is sadly too common in popular books written by academics: it pounds a point to death. Just when you thought you got the point and are to move on, there comes yet another explanation of the very same point. The book could have been written in half as many pages.

In the preface to the book, the authors write:

It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.
I agree wholeheartedly with the first observation. As for the redefining the way we view the world... Well, I think it depends on the level of skepticism the reader has in the first place with regards to conventional wisdom.

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