Nov 23, 2005 6

Book review: Freakonomics

Everybody knows that economics is about measurement and money and things numerical; that’s why most of us find it so damned dull.

But as approached by offbeat economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven D. Levitt, economics is also “the study of incentives”: what it takes to get us to do a certain thing, or to not do it, as the case may be. Which makes it human, and therefore fascinating.

This is what I love about this delightful new book by Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner: that it comes at things sideways or upside-down or head-on, but never the usual way. I’m still not sold on some of the more radical hypotheses Leavitt coaxes from the data (the link between abortion and falling crime rates being the most widely reviled and quoted), but I’m 100% there on the importance of throwing the numbers against conventional wisdom to see what sticks. The numbers may not always tell the exact truth, but neither do they lie, making them extraordinarily useful in the exploding of myths.

Levitt and Dubner tell fascinating stories about how to combat crappy teaching, bring  down the Ku Klux Klan and what happens when you call your kids “Winner” and “Loser” (answer: not necessarily what you’d think on any count). But really, they’ve written a book celebrating the heart of truth: asking questions, and hacks to stay open to the real answers.

As an interesting side note, the prospect of reading something that seemed like it would rock my world long and hard was too enticing to wait for a library copy to become available, but not enticing enough to get me to part with $26 of my hard-earned money. My break point? A 25¢/day rental from the Beverly Hills Public Library, and pushing the rest of my reading to the bottom of the pile. Some might call that cheap, but I’m betting Levitt would come at it sideways and say that I was already giving up time I’d committed to other reading to explore this book, and therefore it was of great value to me.

And you know what? He’d be right.

xxx
c

Posted in: The Useful Ones

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