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Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt

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Genre: Finance / Business / Career / Author: Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner / Hardcover / 256 Pages / Book is published 2005-07-07 by Allen Lane

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    Your dooyooMiles Miles

    8 Reviews
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      15.12.2012 15:30
      Very helpful



      A great read and worh getting hold of

      This book could easily have been titled 'How to make Economics interesting' as it is a long way from the dire warnings of a failed economic policy that George Osbourne talked about this week as he battles to keep his job while the average worker actually loses theirs, this is economics made fun and easy to read as Levitt and Dubner explore and seek to get the answers to some of lifes misteries like Why do dug dealers still live with their mom's and what do teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common. The answer to the latter is that given the right circumstances they both can be shown to cheat however I will leave you to find out what those circumstances are and as to why drig dealers live with their mom's well that is all to do with dollars.

      There is economic theory in this book but it is explained ion a very easy manner which means that the subject material is very accessible and easy to comprehend. Levitt is the economist in the writing team while Dubner is a writer for the New York Times and it is he who transaltes the economic theory and statistical analysis provided by Levitt into something that the punter on the street can identify with and understand.

      I found this to be a real book of discovery, the titles of each chapter really left me wanting to know what the answers or explanations were going to be and the writing style is relaxed and very informative. The chapter on crime was probably the most interesting with statistical analysis comparing crime rates between states with and without the death penalty and also explores the policies of xero tolerance that were put intyo place in New York in the 80's and are widely acclaimed to have cleaned up that city. If you have a basic understanding of correlation then the statistical analysis will be easy to comprehend and follow. The fact that he links legalised abortion with a decline in crime rates does not make for easy reading but the evidence appears to be there none the same, all be it with a few caveats.

      This is an entertaining book which has subsequently been made into a film, the book itself is a great read and they have also since produced a second book.


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      13.10.2011 23:02
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      1 Comment



      A very entertaining and original insight into economics

      Steven D. Levitt stormed onto the social science scene like a rock star with his unconventional questioning and sometimes controversial conclusions on certain matters. He has come to define the term "rogue economist" and has made numbers sexy. At least that is the way his co-author Stephen J. Dubner wants us to see him. "Freakonomics" introduced Levitt to a far wider audience outside of the world of academic papers by asking unusual questions about a vast array of subjects in modern life. Each chapter is based on the academic work that cemented Levitt's reputation for good or ill. Levitt is presented as being something of a mental enigma and I guess Dubner is his translator to us mere mortals. This debut book looks at links between such disparate subjects as cheating school teachers and rigged sumo matches. He uncovers the reason why estate agents don't have your best interests at heart when it comes to selling property by tenuously linking this truth to what led to the growth and decline of the Ku Klux Klan. Along the way, the certain myths about the drug industry are blown apart by asking the question "Why do drug dealers live with their parents?"

      Since the publication of this book, there has been a successful sequel, a regularly updated website/blog and a 2010 documentary film called "Freakonomics". I think I am not over-stating matters if I were to say that "Freakonomics" can now be considered a modern classic in at least the genre of popular social science work. The work is now often cited and has probably done a lot to promote interest in economics. However, by having such a popular appeal one is poised to asked how credible is it?

      After his headline grabbing academic papers on a variety of subjects and the cult success of this book, Levitt's work has been targeted by several critics. This is not just down to his controversial claim that an abortion law passed in 1973 is the main reason why there was a huge decline in crime in the early 1990s, but also because several other economists do not see this as a work of economics. It has been more likened to sociology. The authors - most probably Dubner - even make the argument in the book that economics is more art than science. Such comments are bound to rub up on tender spots amid social scientists who often find their disciplines grouped under the heading "soft science", implying less practicality, empiricism or scientific accuracy than the "hard sciences". Not being a numbers man or a person with any scientific standing, this is territory I will save for another day. After all, the main reason why I bought the book was for the apparently undeniable argument put forward by the authors that sumo wrestling is fixed!

      The authors state early on that the book has no theme. However, it is this aspect that I find so appealing. I am always fascinated with genuine and abstract links between different subjects. If you are trying to get across a single methodology or approach this can be one of the best ways to entice potential learners. So, although it might put off the more serious academic it certainly works well with the rest of us great unwashed masses.

      "Freakonomics" might not be pure economics, but the methodology that Levitt applies is pretty sound and when it comes down to the numbers - which Levitt asserts "never lie" - he has few serious detractors. Aside from the arguments regarding his controversial implications I did notice there was some surprisingly familiar territory. According to software developer and "What's the Harm.Net" creator, Tim Farley "Skepticism [US sp.] is the intersection of science education and consumer protection. We help people learn from science to avoid spending their money on products and services that do not work." Although the book does not expose complimentary and alternative medicine or debunk psychics, it certainly provides potentially important information for the consumer based on the analysis of data. Such examples of this can be seen in the investigation into the fixing of sumo wrestling matches, understanding the data that revealed the cheating of school teachers and why estate agents have little incentive to sell your property at the best price possible.

      However, despite not being a work that is typically listed alongside books like Michael Shermer, Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner and Ben Goldacre, "Freakonomics" ticks many of the sceptical boxes. The edition I own blurts the slogan "Assume nothing, question everything", which sounds like a motto befitting of the modern empirical sceptic movement. Fortunately it's boast to explore "the hidden side of everything" does not mean we are embarking on a series of silly conspiracy theories, but appears to use good sceptical tools. The most obvious of these is the acknowledgement of the "cum hoc ergo propter hoc" logical fallacy or why correlation does not prove causation. This is particularly important when it comes to mining data. Although there is confidence in the way the authors assert certain conclusions, one feels that they are open to criticism and don't commit the cardinal sin of pseudo-rationalists by implying absolute certainty.

      Actually proof of their desire to be honest about their research and data can be seen in a later edition of this book, where apparently the authors admit to readily buying into the somewhat exaggerated stories of author/activist Stetson Kennedy's undercover crusade against the Ku Klux Klan. However, the anecdotal style of each chapter, which cleverly links these otherwise very different subjects, is again a massive appeal of the book. Being more an historical and cultural orientated sceptic than one whose natural inclination is towards science and mathematics, I certainly found the background information on the rise of crack cocaine - and the fascinating analogy with the rise of nylon stockings - to be very interesting. I found the authors' explanation that the crack cocaine trade, as worked through street gangs all the way to criminal corporations, to be no more than a tournament an apt description. The controversial theory on why the crime rate fell dramatically in the US in the early '90s is also very convincing and compelling if you can put aside personal biases. By using other countries as comparisons and by also examining the legitimacy of other theories put forward at the time is also both insightful and provides an interesting overview of the human capacity for cognitive bias. Left-wingers want to believe stricter gun laws helped when they miss the point that most people involved in gun crime would have obtained their weapons from a healthy black market. Right-wingers want to believe that new police initiatives had an impact, when there is little evidence to prove this to be true. I found the whole chapter's conclusions to have been presented in a pretty even-handed and balanced way, and this probably stems from the initial controversy caused when Levitt published his paper on the theory.

      The previously mentioned Ku Klux Klan story was also of great interest to me and long before I read the relatively modest list of criticisms targeted at the first edition of the book, I did some research of my own into this particular anecdote. After all, the idea that the makers of a Superman radio show helped to drastically reduce the membership and diminish the fear of the Ku Klux Klan is a pretty exciting idea. Although the general consensus is that the story reproduced in "Freakonomics" comes from the somewhat overblown memoirs of Stetson who went undercover, the evidence supports the whole crux of the chapter. Namely, that the influence and appeal of the Ku Klux Klan was in part down to the fear of their reputation. This reputation was dealt a severe blow when secret information of the group's current passwords, rankings, ceremonies and rituals were broadcast in radio plays that pitted America's favourite boy-scout against "The Clan of the Fiery Cross". The embellished true story is actually secondary to the interesting data produced by Levitt. He asserts that the Klan's appeal came down to their reputation built on a violent past. The figures that show lynchings attributed to the Klan diminished steadily even as the membership dramatically increased is a possible indication of this; although not to fall prey to the aforementioned logical fallacy, "Freakonomics" compounds this hypothesis with the way membership and overt influence of the Klan fell after more was known about them.

      Finally the two chapters on child-rearing nicely dovetailed into the research and information I gleaned from Richard Wiseman's "59 Seconds" as well as "50 Myths of Popular Psychology". Being a parent, I would rather understand how little an influence I have over my child's mental and cultural development than to deceive myself. It won't stop me from taking my daughter as many museums as possible or from reading to her at night, but sometimes it is nice know you are sharing something for its enjoyment rather than being put under pressure to educate.

      "Freakonomics" deserves a place on the bookshelf of most sceptical readers. The question as to where it fits in exactly might be a little tricky, but I know that many have been enticed into reading more about economics and the social sciences because of this book.


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        18.12.2010 13:32



        A fantastically interesting book covering many topics, issues and phenomenia.

        Freakonomics is the a highly thought provoking microeconomic exploration of seemingly random and unrelated topics which Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner write with great wit and elegance which makes for a fascinating and interesting read.

        It has been a while since I read this book and yet teelingly I still remember a lot of it and I remember how it was, as I have already said, thought provoking. Levitt is an economist and Dubner a journalist and the partnership works terrifically, so much so in fact that a second book which is perhaps even better called Superfreakonomics was later released.

        There is an introduction called The Hidden Side To Everything which explores in simple, understandable terms the reasons behind a number of interesting topics such as why did the US crime rate fall in 1990's and why did are estate agents not incentivised to sell homes at a higher price?

        These issues are looked at briefly using understandable language and concepts. I have never done economics but I understood the book with ease. The answers Levitt and Dubner come up with are fascinating and open up a whole new way of critical thinking.

        The preceding chapters to give you an idea of how fascinating this book is go like this:

        What do schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in common?

        The theme of incentives and the human response to incentives is explored. An exploration is made of how this leads to cheating.

        How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of Real-Estate Agents?

        The theme of information being the key to power is explored and results of what can happen as a result of having an informational advantage over someone is revealed.

        Why do drug dealers still live with their Moms?

        A chapter in which conventional wisdom is found often to be a web of fabrication, self-interest and convienance.

        Where have all the criminals gone?

        The true roots of the decline in crime are revealed. In this a compelling case is made against the usual hypotheses put forward by police chiefs and others. The answer Levitt gives is fascinating. Read to find out what it is. I don't want to give it away.

        What makes a perfect parent?

        The economics of fear and rationality are explored in this chapter with the questions asked all being related to parenting. Example questions posed are ones such as: Which is more dangerous a gun or a swimming pool? Again I believe entirely the reasoning behind all of Levitt's arguments, Levitt is brilliant at making a compelling case for his unusual arguments and analysis on the issues that he covers.

        Perfect Parenting, Part II; or: Would a Roshanda by any other name smell as sweet?

        In this chapter the act of naming a baby is examined to see what effect it has upon success. For example who becomes more successful, Winner or Loser? And which names are associated with success and which with failure?

        There has been criticism about this book because of its lack of methodology, however I think a substantial part of the appeal of the book is its appeal and accessibility to ordinary people. By no means do you need to be good at economics to understand this book and additionally to all this and probably most importantly all the arguments seem logical and are convincingly argued. The chapter titles may leave you wondering what relevance has to everyday life. Trust me however when I say this book will leave you questioning, analysing and thinking about everything. The theme of incentives, for example which is explored in the first chapter can be transferred with ease into a variety of different situations which you face in every day life.

        This is an absolutely fascinating and well written book which is easy to read and follow. Well-worth reading.


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          24.05.2010 21:02
          Very helpful



          An engaging read into the unseen world of an economists mind

          An excruciatingly interesting book taking you into the world of Economics. The true world of economics. Not the end of the news FTSE 100 type stuff but accounts and research into the reasons why 'stuff' happens. How a name can affect your life. The reason behind drug dealers still living with their parents.
          It is the research, albeit controversial research, into abortions that create one of the most engaging parts of the book. Steve D. Levitt concluded the reason the early 90s saw a reduction in crime was due to the legalisation of abortion in the 70s. In simple terms less people were being born into families where they weren't wanted thereby stopping the would-be unloved children to crime. This obviously being said in America caused outrage through many far-right pro-life Christians condemning Levitt's ideas on abortion. When the passage is read, you'll be hard done by to disagree with the theory.
          The other most interesting is the life of D. A drug lord with strikingly similar traits as Stringer Bell in The Wire. Both at the top of their game. Both educated and still going to night school studying marketing etcetera. The whole book pulls towards the idea of incentives and how these affect our choices. A drug dealer makes less than a McDonald's employee but the incentive of rising higher and quicker so therefore bringing in more money, is great enough for someone to risk their own life (1 in 4 'foot soldiers' are killed in their first month of drug running).
          One last thing to say is try and get the copy with the Freakonomics blog printed at the end. The writings of Levitt and Dubner are still ongoing allowing each publication to grow with more blogs printed, connecting the ideas in the book to modern day occurrences. Fans of The Wire, buy it to further strengthen your knowledge in the drug trade, and just why it is so hard to stop.


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            12.01.2010 17:42
            Very helpful



            Read it whether your interested in economics or not, either it is a great non-fiction read!!

            As a budding A level economics student I was looking for books that would introduce me into some of the key principles of economics and in learning the way in which an economist's mind work and this was the book that was recommended to me by various people.

            The books seeks to use link two almost inextricable notions through a similarity in economic theory. In doing this it expresses one of the key points that I think is the biggest misconception about economics and the study of economics. It is not necessarily always a study of the markets and finance but a look at like and the way things work and the reason way things are as they are. Things that the two authors examine include the complex world of drug dealing and the way in which there is in fact a very complex economic network within a drug dealing gang. They also look at the world of sumo wrestling, cheating school teachers and the big crime surge in the US in the late 20th century.

            Whilst as i said there is not a constant explicit look at some of the big economic agents, which as a beginner one probably wouldn't understand anyway, it is an excellent way of getting oneself into the correct mindset in order to then go on to some of the more complex stuff.

            In terms of ease of read I would say it is very easy, it uses subject matters which are generally fairly common to most people nowadays. It is not too long at just 336 pages and is fairly up-to-date the most recent edition being published in 2006. This book captivated me every time I picked it up and helped me no end I believe in gaining that A grade (it was pre A* at A level!).


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              03.10.2008 20:13
              Very helpful



              Discovering a totally new way of seeing the World

              About the Author(s)
              Steven D.Levitt is an Economics Professor at the University of Chicago.His idiosyncratic economic research into areas as varied as guns and game shows has triggered debates ..He has received the American Association's John Bates Clark Medal, awarded every two years to the best American economist under forty.

              In fact Levitt's work has been criticised widely by a fair number of Economists, who might not even recognise his work as economics, but at the same time , his thinking has influenced many others, including Senators,Prisoners,CIA and scores of people from different walks of life.

              As Levitt sees it, Economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.
              And his particular ability is that he is unafraid of asking such questions.

              Stephen J. Dubner lives in New York city.He writes for the New yorker and The New York Times.In August 2003 Dubner wrote a profile on Levitt in the New York Times Magazine and the extraordinary response the article received led to a remarkable collaboration between the two.
              Freakonomics is the eagerly anticipated result of this collaboration.

              About the Book and its contents

              There is an Explanatory note in which the origins of the book are clarified -how it began with Dubner, an author and journalist and Levitt an Economist met and decided to talk things over and write a book.

              Introduction- The hidden side of everything
              In which the book's central idea is set forth..if morality represents how people would like the world to work, then economics shows how it actually does work.
              Fundamental ideas of the book are touched upon- to name some of them-Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.
              Conventional Wisdom is often wrong.
              and Knowing what to measure and how to measure it, makes a complicated world much less so.

              The following 6 chapters

              1, What do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in common?
              It explores the dark side of human nature namely cheating and the beauty of incentives.An analysis on cheating in everyday life in various fields including class rooms, sports field even day care centres..

              2,How is the Ku Klux Klan like a Group of Real estate Agents?

              The power of information is discussed here.The use and abuse of certain information and the power these information generate. Also explores things like what do online daters lie about?The author observes that The gulf between the information we publicly proclaim and the information we know to be true is often vast.

              3,Why do Drug dealers still live with their moms?

              The drug culture has been thoroughly discussed here- the daily lives of ghetto criminals and gangs, and the first hand experience and street level research made by Venkatesh a Phd student in Sociology at the university of Chicago as he lives with a gang in a ghetto and collects data for his research.

              4,Where have all the Criminals Gone?

              Facts and fictions relating to a crime are sorted out - Follows closely the American crime graph and how it is related to the rise and fall of a country's economy.
              Discusses the pros and cons of an Abortion and relating subjects.

              5,What makes a perfect Parent?

              Has there ever been another art so devoutly converted into a science as the art of parenting?the difficulties of parenting, separating facts from rumors , while trying to be a perfect parent.
              Child safety and bad parenting are discussed.

              6, Perfect Parenting, Pat II ; or Would Roshanda by any other name smell as Sweet?

              To quote the author "The belief in parental power is manifest in the first official act a parent commits; Giving the baby a name.Explores various facts and possibilities about names and culture, the typical white names and the typical black names and is there a link between the names and perceptions by the society.

              My views about the book and its contents

              This is one of the most interesting non fiction writings that i have ever read.It makes you think and analyse without taxing your brain.

              It is the everyday matters that are being discussed here in these chapters, but the look and the view projected here is totally different.It is like you are looking at some thing that you have already seen , but are perceiving much more than you did earlier.
              There is an in depth analysis of subjects through the various chapters and together the authors bring out many hidden aspects.

              It is very interesting to go through the facts and figures provided by them as they go through their deep sometimes upside down analysis.

              To quote the author the purpose of this book - " The most likely result of having read this book is a simple one.You may find yourself asking a lot of questions.many of them will lead to nothing.But some will produce answers that are interesting even surprising..'

              It is all about using information to your advantage and to get to the heart of what's really happening under the surface of everyday life around us.

              Author:- Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
              Country:- United States
              Language :- English
              Subject(s) :- Economics
              Genre(s):- Non-fiction
              Publisher:- William Morrow
              Publication date:- April 12, 2005
              Media type:- Hardback & Paperback
              Pages:- 336 pp (hardback edition)


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                25.10.2006 18:28
                Very helpful



                A book that poses and answers some interesting questions.

                If the thought of the local chavs dressing up this Halloween and demanding sweets with menaces does not fill you with dread then maybe the thought of reading a book based on the application of Economic statistical analysis just might, however in reality your fears would be misplaced because just as the chav is just someone’s son (all be it probably illegitimate) so this book is an entertaining and thought provoking read which merely takes the tools of Economic theory and applies them to a whole range of issues and questions.

                Now the last time I read an Economics book was over 19 years ago for my degree but I had read a couple of reviews of this book and thought it sounded like a fun read. There are two authors of the book; Steven Levitt has been claimed as the most brilliant young American economist whilst Stephen Dubner is a writer for the New York Times. It is pretty obvious that whilst Levitt has the theories and the ability to pose some quite unusual questions, Dubner contribution to the book is to take these and produce a commercially acceptable vehicle which will entertain the general public.

                This is achieved by the ability to pose some quite random and strange questions alongside some serious topical ones and to use the evidence gathered by Levitt to either prove some popular assumptions wrong or to produce a whole new explanation for what is going on. This results in a book that poses some quite fascinating questions that cannot help to attract the readers’ curiosity.

                Once you get past the introduction which details how the two came to work together and summarises the later content of the book the first chapter is imaginatively entitled "What do school teachers and Sumo wrestlers have in common?” The remaining chapters have similarly interesting titles which whilst they hint at the content can often take the reader in a slightly different direction. “Why do drug dealers still live with their Moms?” is another such example. There are also some sections that are a little more straight forward with titles such as “What makes a perfect parent?” and “Where have all of the criminals gone?”

                Now I do not want to go into any real detail of the content of each chapter as in part this will give too much of the “plot” away as the enjoyment of this book is discovering the opinions expressed and making up your own mind on whether they are valid or not, however I will give a flavour of the latter chapter “Where have all of the criminals gone?” as it not only serves to show how Levitt mind works but also some of the concerns that might be expressed about his theories and the danger of them being adopted by those of a certain political bias.

                In the chapter Levitt looks at the changes in crime figures that took place across the USA and opens with the predictions in the early 1990’s that crime rates were expected to rise dramatically with the growth of crack fuelled crime and a year on year rise in the 80’s. When in fact the crime rate actually fell many theories were put forward to explain this including the most popular theories about the increase in police numbers, the zero tolerance policies of Mayor Giuliani in New York, rises in gun ownership and conversely tougher gun controls to name but a few. In this chapter Levitt goes on to explore each of these and using statistical evidence goes on to state his views on which of these actually stand up to interrogation. In some cases he finds evidence to support them, for example there is a direct causal correlation between an increase in the number of serving police officers and drops in crime numbers however his assertion is that such claims often over state the effect. At the end of it all Levitt provides his own unique theory to the fall in crime and links it back to a court case that took place 20 years before in the mid seventies which established the right of women to have an abortion. Now clearly linking abortion to crime reduction is not likely to be the most ethical of views and Levitt is at pains to state that he does not view this as a policy proposal however what he does show is a direct statistical relationship between the two with an effective evaluation of how this occurs that on the face of it is hard to challenge. In fact policies that impact on population growth have throughout history been used to attempt to achieve economic or political goals, take for example China attempt to restrict population growth with laws restricting families to having only one child and Hitler attempt to wipe out a number of races during the 1940’s.

                What is interesting in this theory is that currently in the US there is legislation that will likely go all the way to the Supreme Court that will challenge the Wade v Roe ruling of 1973 and if successful it will be interesting to review the crime figures for the USA in twenty years time to see if the trend has been reversed.

                There is a certain amount of what I would call “dumming down” in the content of the book. There is reference to the statistical analysis that Levitt makes use of however he does not go into great detail making it hard to challenge some of his theories after all there are “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” (to probably miss-quote some saying but the gist is right) however it must be recognised that this is a book aimed at the mass market and as such it certainly achieves its aim as it does provide an entertaining thought provoking read which will make most readers question their own parenting methods, confirm their mistrust of estate agents and make smarter bets on sumo fights.

                The book is well written in my opinion with a good use of humour and despite an attempt to talk up the profile of Levitt with a number of quotes and reproduced reviews in the book it does serve to get the reader thinking and to recognise that some things we assume to be true or accept at face value may in fact have no real foundation in reality.

                Do remember to assume is to put an ass before you and me.

                Published by Penguin books the rrp of the paperback is £8.99 which is a little pricey as it runs to only 207 pages of meaningful text however those nice people at Amazon will provide it to you for a more reasonable £5.39 new or for an even more reasonable £1.98 in the new and used section. The ISBN is 0-141-01901-8.

                Thanks for reading and rating my review.


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                  14.03.2006 17:08
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                  An engaging and stimulating read, but with an irritating tendency to overstate its case

                  What's in a name? How does it affect your chances in life if your parents call you by a name like Winner, for example, or Loser? Or even Shithead? These are just a few of the questions that this intriguing book attempts to answer.

                  What's in a name? How does it affect your book's chances of success if you call it by a catchy, contrived word like Freakonomics, rather than by a name that would more accurately reflect its contents?

                  Freakonomics is a good and stimulating book, but before reviewing what it has to say, I have a gripe to get off my chest. What is it about the Americans - and increasingly about the British - that they seem unable to present anything on its own merits, but have to hype it to a point where one is in danger of losing sight of those merits? Okay, that's a rhetorical question, and as a former marketing man I know the answer better than most. Sometimes, though, it irks me.

                  Freakonomics is subtitled 'A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything'. Wrong on almost every count.

                  Steven D Levitt, one of the co-authors of the book and the "Rogue Economist" in question is not particularly rogue. He has simply chosen to look at some issues, primarily social ones, that do not usually concern economists. In doing so, he is not really acting as an economist - although that is his academic background - but more as an analytical statistician, albeit an exceptionally adept and clear-thinking one. Besides being a clear thinker, he is also a lateral thinker, with a knack of teasing out explanations that would not occur to most people - but these explanations are not "hidden" any more than they are "freaky", just previously unconsidered. And the range of subjects he explores definitely falls far short of "everything".

                  Fortunately, although this vein of over-statement resurfaces at several points in the book, it does not manage to devalue the interesting and important subject-matter. Where it matters, the argument is sharp, rigorous and illuminating.

                  Let me illustrate this by citing one of the Freakonomics case-studies, which happens to be the one that has attracted most attention and provoked most controversy.

                  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

                  In the 1990s the crime rate in the USA fell consistently, contrary to most experts' expectations. Indeed, it took most of the decade for those experts to recognise that crime was actually on the retreat, so confident had they been of its continued increase. When they finally did so, they offered numerous explanations, such as: -

                  - Innovative policing, like New York's 'zero tolerance' approach
                  - Increased prison sentencing
                  - Changes in drug markets
                  - Aging population
                  - Tougher gun control
                  - Strong economy
                  - Increased police numbers
                  - Increased use of capital punishment.

                  Levitt examined each of these possible explanations in the light of detailed statistics as to where and at what rate crime had fallen. For example, had it fallen fastest in cities or states where police numbers had been increased or the economy grown most quickly, and, if so, what other factors were present in those places which could also have had an influence? At the end of the exercise, he was able to show that of the eight explanations offered above, five were demonstrably baloney. Only three could possibly have any validity (I'll leave you to guess which three, or to read the book to find out).

                  But even the three explanations that stood up to scrutiny fitted the facts less well than a ninth explanation that no one else appeared to have considered.

                  In 1973, nearly twenty years before the crime rate began to fall, the US Supreme Court took its landmark decision in the case of Wade v Roe and effectively legalised abortion. In the years that followed, millions of unwanted pregnancies were terminated. Many of the pregnant women who took this option did so because they knew that otherwise they would be bringing up children in very adverse family circumstances - impoverished, for example, or with absent or abusive fathers, or maybe with mothers with drug or alcohol problems.

                  Such family circumstances do not necessarily, or even usually, lead to a life of crime, but there is any amount of evidence to show that criminals are disproportionately more likely to come from such backgrounds than from less deprived ones. So Levitt's hypothesis was that legalised abortion had simply reduced the number of potential criminals being born, with predictable results around twenty years later when young criminals are at their most active.

                  Needless to say, no one liked this hypothesis. Anti-abortion conservatives who also tended to believe in law-and-order didn't like the implication that there might be a conflict between the two beliefs. Social liberals were uncomfortable with the link between adverse background and crime being seen in this context, fearing that it might lead to measures to prevent some women from having children, and - since many of those with the relevant backgrounds were black - that it would give ammunition to racists and eugenicists.

                  But, as so often with an unpopular truth, it still fitted the facts - in this case the facts of where and when the abortions had been carried out and where and when crime had fallen - better than any other explanation.

                  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

                  This is, of course, just one of many case-studies covered in Freakonomics. Not all involve such weighty subjects.

                  Among the other subjects on which Levitt's incisive gaze is focussed are: -

                  - Whether sumo wrestlers collude to fix results (it appears they do)
                  - Whether estate agents haggle hard enough to obtain the best prices for their vendors (if you've ever sold a house you'll know the answer)
                  - Whether teachers sometimes cheat to improve their pupils' grades in standardised tests (a number of teachers in Chicago were subsequently fired for doing so)
                  - Whether contestants in the American version of The Weakest Link showed racial bias in whom they chose to vote off the game (interestingly, they showed anti-Hispanic bias, but not anti-black; they also discriminated against the elderly)
                  - Which aspects of parenting have most positive impact on a child's school performance (at the risk of vastly over-simplifying a complex finding, it's more to do with what kind of people the parents are than what they do to encourage learning)
                  - Arising from this, the effect of naming on children's success, with particular reference to names chosen by black parents (a fascinating but relatively inconclusive study).

                  Economics? Maybe not, but maybe it doesn't matter, as we are told that "economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions". More recognisably in the economics sphere, but not in quite the same 'question-answering' vein, are studies of the financial and organisational structures of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Disciples, a Chicago drugs gang. The latter turned out to be run on lines remarkably similar to those of McDonald's, which might or might not surprise some readers.

                  This all interesting stuff, and readably presented, but it lacks a unifying theme, except for that of Levitt's involvement. The authors try to bring it together by interspersing the case-studies with excerpts from an article about Levitt that his co-author, Stephen Dubner, wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Levitt is undoubtedly an impressive figure, lauded by his fellow-economists as well as having more recently attained popular recognition. Nevertheless, I found these excerpts irritating, detracting from the intrinsic interest of the subject matter.

                  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

                  As is explained in the introduction, the interviews preceding that article sparked the idea of the book. Levitt's role was obviously to provide the research findings and ensure that they were not misrepresented. Dubner's role, as the journalistic partner, was to bring them to life for the lay reader.

                  On the whole, they succeed. There is little jargon and the statistical groundwork is skated over to a degree that will be deeply dissatisfying to academics but for which I for one was profoundly grateful. Indeed, the fault if any is on the opposite side, that of the simplistic, with not enough detailed evidence for the findings being given; but probably we can take it on trust that other experts have already subjected the underlying work to the necessary scrutiny.

                  The presentation is popularised, sometimes excessively so, but it is not trivialised. As a result, Freakonomics is a stimulating read. It casts light, often from an unexpected angle, on a range of interesting topics.

                  It is a valuable antidote to false assumptions. It reminds us not to jump to conclusions and that 'conventional wisdom' is often not just unwise but wrong. It is strong on the distinction between correlation and causality. Just because Y and Z coincide, it doesn't mean that Y causes Z, however plausible that may seem. It may be Z that is causing Y, or that both are caused by X, a different factor entirely. Obvious perhaps, but all too frequently forgotten. Levitt never forgets it, and is brilliant at spotting what X might be, and at devising methods to prove (or disprove) it.

                  This makes for instructive as well as entertaining reading, even if it is not particularly freaky.

                  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

                  Freakonomics is published in the UK by Penguin under its Allen Lane imprint. Its ISBN is 0-713-99806-7, and it weighs in at 242 pages. The hardback is priced at £20, though Amazon currently has it for just £11.99 plus P&P. I understand that it will soon (April 2006) appear more economically, and no less freakily, in paperback.

                  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

                  What else? Oh, you want to know about Winner, Loser and Shithead. Well, Winner's progress in life was lamentably undistinguished, his most notable achievement being, as the book puts it, the sheer length of his criminal record. Meanwhile, his brother Loser pursued a modestly successful career in the New York Police Department, making the rank of Detective Sergeant. But you could (I'm sure Levitt would) say that a sample of two is far too small to justify drawing any conclusions.

                  As for Shithead, we know only that her mother was upset that people seemed unwilling to pronounce her name "Shuh-Teed", as intended. Her fate is otherwise unrecorded, but it does make one grateful for the relative restraint of one's own parents.

                  © first published under the name torr on Ciao UK, September 27th 2005.


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