Freakonomics

7 August 2006
7:59 AM

I like interesting stuff. That, of course, make me no different than any other person; everyone likes interesting stuff. What differs is each person’s criteria for deciding what is interesting. I am particular to explanations about how things work (especially people), why the world is the way it is, and data. If you can work technology into that somehow, that’s a bonus too. For those reasons, I enjoyed Freakonomics by by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, a book that examines all sorts of phenomenon at the microeconomic level to see just what we can learn from them. Through the topics, the authors explain economics: what it is, what it does, and the tools it uses to do it.

Part of Freakonomics’s appeal is the sheer randomness of the topics it tackles. To name a few: cheating in sumo wrestling, dealing crack cocaine, whether guns or swimming pools are more dangerous, infiltrating the KKK, and good parenting. Another is the ongoing theme of conventional wisdom busting. Conventional wisdom—what everyone is thinking—says one thing, but careful analysis of the facts says another. If the conventional wisdom dismantled in Freakonomics leads us to be more skeptical of widely held beliefs in general, it will already have made itself a valuable read.

Despite the scholarly credentials of the authors, Freakonomics is not overly erudite. In fact, sometimes I thought the opposite. Often the authors would describe how the data in question was analyzed, “controlling for such and such variables,” which left me wondering how that is done. In fact, only after mentioning the technique several times do they offer the barest explanation of what that means.

The book is presented as a series of interesting tidbits, and in that it succeeds by my standards of interesting (thought I found the last chapter on white and black names to be much lower on my this-is-interesting scale than the others). Based on that alone, I would recommend it to others. It’s a quick enough read for what you get—I polished it off in about a day. What is lamentable is that the authors didn’t set their sights higher. Though the book’s scope is quite broad in terms of subject matter addressed, its use after reading is relatively low. There doesn’t seem to have been any desire on the authors’ part to get people to think for themselves about what they might find interesting outside the text. Had they chosen a slightly different path, Freakonomics could have provided a more explicit set of tools for thinking about problems and thus established some relevancy outside its 208 pages. Heaven knows it’s packed with enough fascinating examples to encourage us to take the ride. As it is, Freakonomics provides a chunk of entertaining mind candy that gives a glimpse into how economists approach thinking. (★★★★ of 5)

The copy of Freakonomics that I read was 242 pages long (including index), published in early 2005. I see that a “Revised and Expanded Edition” is scheduled for publication in October 2006. I’m not sure what necessitates two editions published so closely, though I certainly hope this isn’t a new trend the book industry is picking up from its experience publishing school textbooks. Perhaps someone can tell me come October what the new edition adds, besides an extra $20 to someone’s pockets.

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