Freakonomics

Last week I finally got my hands on "Freakonomics," courtesy of the Brookline Public Library (via ILL at the SPL). I found it to be a quick and interesting read. Levitt (economist) and Dubner (journalist) don't get too far into the math behind all this econ, which is fine by me since I don't know the first thing about economics, let alone the math behind it. And really, that's ok with me. 

Anyway, as I was saying. I enjoyed the book, though I think it's safe to say that people who know stuff about econ and math will probably be disappointed that there is so little to back up the claims in print. This is not to say that the topics and analysis they write about are pulled out of thin air; rather, they don't go into the details of how they used the data they had to figure out what they figured out. Each chapter had plenty of  end notes, to cite some of the stats, which was enough for me.

The idea driving the book is that the math and analysis traditionally used by economists can be applied to things other than the economy to find out neat and interesting stuff. So, to that end, in this book Levitt looks at things like why drug dealers live with their moms and how to look at kids' scores on standardized tests to figure out when the teachers are cheating. Another good chapter focused on why crime really went down in the 90s: according to Levitt, when you adjust the numbers to take into account all the things that are typically credited (more cops, better policing, etc.) none of them have any major impact on crime. What does? Roe v. Wade. That was a fascinating chapter. Go read it — there's so much to this argument that I can't sum it all up here, but suffice it to say that I thought what they were saying made sense. There's also a chapter about names — they start off looking at whether or not a strange or unusual name can hurt someone's job prospects, and in doing that research found some trends in baby naming — names trickle down the economic ladder over the years.

There are random facts strewn throughout; the one that sticks out the most to me is in regard to sexual assaults: according to the authors, the typically-quoted statistics for sexual assaults against women in the US (including attempted assaults) is that 1 in 3 women will be assaulted in her lifetime. In reality, they say that this statistic is closer to 1 in 9. For men, what's quoted is usually 1 in 8; in reality it's closer to 1 in 40. (You'll have to forgive me for forgetting exactly where they got their data — I had to return the book already, but they cite the source in the end notes, and it was a national crime statistics report or database of some kind.)
Overall, I found it an interesting read and it made me think — without making my head hurt! Yeah! Track it down if it's been on your list.

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2 thoughts on “Freakonomics

  1. I read it last year, when it came out. I was disappointed, but not because they didn’t go into the math or the economic reasoning. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the ideas. I thought they were great. (Though the subtitle is “A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.” Levitt clearly isn’t rogue, he’s just going off in a new(?) direction. But he is supported by the establishment. And ‘everything’ isn’t even stretching it. It’s beyond stretching. But I guess saying “an economist explores the previously unexplored side of a couple of dozen things” doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

    The book was clearly written by Dubner, from the ideas of Levitt. And it felt like Dubner was in love with Levitt, and that Levitt could do no wrong. And that just weirded me out. The book quotes one author talking about the other one.

    I dunno. I went and read some of Levitt’s original articles after I read the book and those were quite interesting. I think it was the hagiography aspect that turned me off.

  2. I’ve not read this one yet, but it is on my “to read” list. I’ve heard similar things to what Arun said, and that’s turned me off for a bit. I will read it this summer, though, as it has moved to the top of the reading list gradually.

    I will also recommend The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a book in the same vein as Freakonomics. A little bit, anyway. The subtitle is “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.” The author claims that the crime rate decreased not due to an increase in police force or spending, but rather how that money was spent: focusing on small stuff like vandalism, which led to the arrests of worse offenders. I’m paraphrasing, of course, and it’s a bit more involved than that, but you get the picture.

    Anyway, I’d recommend it, with one caveat: the “tipping point” in questing isn’t adequately explained for my taste. It seems as if the author is applying a philosophical idea to the data, instead of formulating the idea from the data. It’s been a few years since I read it, though, so my memory of it might be a bit askew. It’s worth checking out, however. I have a copy of it, if you’d like to borrow it.

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