Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Freakonomics, #1)by Published 17 Oct 2006
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Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime? Freakonomics will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.
These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much heralded scholar who studies the stuff and riddles of everyday life -- from cheating and crime to sports and child rearing -- and whose conclusions regularly turn the conventional wisdom on its head. He usually begins with a mountain of data and a simple, unasked question. Some of these questions concern life-and-death issues; others have an admittedly freakish quality. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: freakonomics.
Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives -- how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. In Freakonomics, they set out to explore the hidden side of ... well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The myths of campaign finance. The telltale marks of a cheating schoolteacher. The secrets of the Ku Klux Klan.
What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and -- if the right questions are asked -- is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Steven Levitt, through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, shows how to see through all the clutter.
Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. 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.
"Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Freakonomics, #1)" Reviews
This was an interesting book. I say it was interesting because I started liking it (a lot) when I first read it, as time passed I liked it less and less. In that way I call it a candy book, tastes good at first but leaves you worse off for reading it.
In my opinion, there are two problems with the book: First, Stephen Dubner comes across as a sycophant. Way to much of the book is spent praising Levitt. Secondly, I was disappointed in the lack of detail provided about Livitt's hypothesis. I wanted more. It was like reading War and Peace and discovering that you read the abridged version and in fact the book wasn't 100 pages long. This disappointment may have come from my engineering background and my strong desire to really understand economics. This book didn't offer any of that, only a titillating glimpse of the economics.
In some regards one may think my single start rating is to harsh. As mind candy this book was quite good. I did enjoy reading it at the time. Whats more, it did encourage me to study real economics. I am currently enrolled in a masters program in economics and this book did play a very small roll in that decision process. However, as I learn more about economics I realize how shallow the book in fact was.
While this is not the forum for a comprehensive review of the topics presented in the book, or an analysis of how good the economics in Freekanomics are, a review in "Journal of Economic Literature (Vol XLV, Dec. 2007 pp 973)" quotes Livitt as saying: "There is no question I have written some ridiculous papers." The article then goes on to quote a paper by Noam Scheibler(2007) describing Livitt's comparing some of his papers to the fashion industry. "Sometimes you write papers and they're less about the actual result, more about your vision of how you think the profession should be. And so I think some of my most ridiculous papers actually fall in the high-fashion category."
Yes, zero stars.
There is one segment of this book that reports use of a dataset I know very well -- the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. From what details they put into the book, it's fairly clear that the researchers did not research the reliability of the data elements they chose to use from FARS. In particular, their analysis rests on the ability to identify uninjured children in vehicles that were involved in fatal crashes. FARS has data elements for this, but the reliability of the data in those data elements is suspect at best. If you go back beyond around 2002's data, you are missing quite a bit of data. And the data errors are not randomly distributed. In other words, it's not a usable dataset for the purpose it was put to.
It's a rookie mistake. We all make them from time to time. But, when you are going out on a limb and finding results that directly contradict the "prevailing wisdom" I believe you have a responsibility to check your work thoroughly and not just rely on peer review -- especially if you submit your work to publications where the reviewers are likely to share your ignorance on a particular data set.
In short, the way the child safety seat data were handled in this body of work makes me suspect that the entire work is similarly filled with errors that are understandable in a novice, but inexcusable in someone promoting himself as a "rogue" anything.
Sure, this book was a compelling read that offered us all some great amo for cocktail party conversation. But ultimately I think most of what Leavitt claims is crap.
He dodges accoutability with the disclaimer about his book NOT being a scholarly work, but then goes on to drop statistics, theories and expert opinions. These assertions laid, he doesn't provide readers with enough information to critically examine his perspectives.
Ultimately I have a problem with the unquestioned, unaccoutable role of the public intellectual. Leavitt dances around with his PhD on his sleeve, but is never subject to peer review or any sort of academic criticism. I think it's irresponsible.
I loved this book, though I think the title is a bit misleading. It's not really about economics. In fact, he's showing you what interesting things you can discover when you apply statistical analysis to problems where you wouldn't normally think of using it. I use statistical methods a fair amount in my own work, so I found it particularly interesting. The most startling and thought-provoking example is definitely the unexpected reduction in US urban crime that occurred towards the end of the 20th century. Crime rates had been rising for decades, and people were really worried about what would happen if the trend continued. Then, suddenly, they peaked and started to decline. Why? There were a bunch of theories, all of them superficially plausible.
Levitt crunched the numbers, to see what proportion of the variance could be ascribed to the different factors. This is a completely standard technique; it just hadn't been used here before. He came to the conclusion that the single most important factor, by far, was the ready availability of abortion that started to come in after Roe v Wade. Other things, like more resources for policing and tougher sentencing policies, probably helped, but not nearly as much. I didn't at all get the impression that he had been expecting this result from the start, and just wanted to prove his point. He processed the data, and went where the numbers led him. That's how you're supposed to do science.
The clincher, at least as far as I was concerned, was the fact that crime statistics peaked at different points in different states, the peaks correlating very well with the dates when each state started making abortion available. States that brought it in early had correspondingly early peaks in their crime rates. It's hard to see how that could happen if Levitt's explanation weren't correct.
I am surprised that there hasn't been more discussion of Levitt's findings in the political world. Maybe it's just regarded as too hot to handle. But if Levitt is right, and at the moment I would say it's up to his critics to explain why he isn't, then pro-life campaigners would seem be heading in a very unfortunate direction.
Jesus H Tittyfucking Christ on a bike! Could these two tossers be any more smarmy and self indulgent? Levitt and Dubner and probably the kind of smart arse nerds who snigger at you because you don't understand linux but sneer at you because you've actually spoken to a woman.
This book is much like the Emperor's New Clothes, people are so scared about being left out if they don't like or understand it because some sandal wearing hippy in the Guardian said it's 'This year's Das Capital' or some such bollocks that they feel compelled to join some sort of unspoken club where they all jizz themselves silly over a book that effectively is 300+ pages of pure condescension.
Only buy this book if a facist regime ever seizes control of your country and instigates a book burning policy.