Book: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Excellent book that debunks many kinds of conventional wisdom

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
William Morrow, 2005
ISBN: 0-06-073152-X
207 pages (main text)

I am at heart something of an iconoclast. I enjoy seeing the conventional wisdom debunked and smug experts shown to be wrong. And reading Freakonomics was more fun of that kind than I've had since I read Bjørn Lomborg's fabulous The Skeptical Environmentalist.

As for the authors, Steven D. Levitt is a famous economist who teaches at the University of Chicago and Stephen J. Dubner is a writer who lives in New York. In 2003, Mr Levitt won the John Bates Clark Medal, which is given every second year to the best American economist under 40, and The New York Times sent Mr Dubner to write a profile of him. They later decided to collaborate on Freakonomics. And it's a very successful collaboration.

You might not expect an economist to have much to say that's interesting to someone who isn't another economist. But it turns out that the tools of economic analysis can be applied to very interesting questions and that they can sometimes give surprising and very persuasive answers. (That's another thing the book has in common with The Skeptical Environmentalist; Mr Lomborg is a professor of statistics and uses statistics to come to equally surprising and persuasive conclusions.)

Teachers cheat for their students on standardized tests. in Japan, Sumo matches are often fixed. Real-estate agents often do not act in their clients' best interests. Those are a few of the many fascinating conclusions that Messrs Levitt and Dubner come to. They also look into the economics of crack gangs and the value of parenting techniques. If those sound like things you're at all intrigued by, you'll enjoy Freakonomics.

The book's title and subtitle are a bit much. But I expect that they were foisted on the authors by their publisher. There isn't (or shouldn't be) anything freaky or "rogue" about an economist working on questions that are of interest to a general reader.

The book doesn't have much of a unifying theme, but the authors are up front about that. And that a fascinating conclusion is waiting for you on the next page is enough to hold the book together. Some of the conclusions later in the book are more tentative, but I can only really wish that this slim volume were longer.

There's "sheriff's" where "sheriffs'" is wanted (p. 57), "golden mean" where "happy medium" would be better (p. 71), and "in utero" should be italicized (p. 170).

Posted: Wed - June 8, 2005 at 08:03   Main   Category: