Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Freakonomics: Levitt & Dubner

A few more reviews to go, but the pile of books next to my bed is getting smaller.

So Freakonomics....
Great hype, great title (although that is disputed), some great ideas, but largely a gimmick. Levitt has been hailed as groundbreaking and has made economics fashionable. But sadly in this book he comes across as a one trick pony, once you’ve been amazed by the new trick it becomes passé and you’re left hanging and hungry for more but no new tricks appear. He reveals his hand too soon and the game is over.

I first came across Levit via this
brief report by blogger Stuart Buck which then led me to read Dubner’s NY Times article that provides the basis for the above book. (you need to register [free] to view it sadly). The article intrigued and I was looking forward to reading the book.

Disappointingly the book is really just a drawn out expansion of the original article. Not to say that Levitt’s work is not groundbreaking or the product of profound insight and couched in genius. It is, but it’s not a book’s worth.

The introductory chapter sets out the entire thesis of the book and then is padded with the readable and interesting supporting detail until there is enough writing to call it a book. Once you’ve been made aware of the correlation between the Roe v Wade abortion ruling in 1973 and the decrease in urban crime in the late 1980’s (a mindblowing correlation it must be said) the supporting anecdotes are all a bit of an anticlimax. The one trick pony is just given too much time in the ring.

What I am judging here are not Levitt’s ideas and the genius behind them. He changed (or at least alerted me) to a way of thinking that I have absorbed into my consciousness to the extent that I am now constantly looking for the relatedness between seemingly unrelated events. But I did this on the basis of Dubner’s article and a bit of web research without the need for the book.

I also wonder how much the success of this book can be attributed to the marketing tactics applied in pre-releasing this book (for free) to a number of influential US bloggers (Stuart Buck & who else?). What better way to create some positive hype. Any blogger who starts getting free books is hardly likely to write a damning review & risk drying up a source of free books. Ironically this is the type of behaviour (the response to, sometimes hidden, incentives) that Levitt tries to highlight.

I don’t mean this to be a negative review. The ideas and claims are great it’s most rewarding to quote the following “proofs” at dinner parties and braais.

1. A swimming pool is MUCH more likely to kill a child than a gun.
2. The drop in crime in the 1990's was due to the legalization of abortion in 1973.
3. Teachers often help their students cheat on standardized tests.
4. Drug dealing pays less than the minimum wage.
5. Estate agents do not act in your best interest. (Funny that!)
6. Reading to your kids won’t improve their marks
7. Will having the right name provide you with success in life?

Etc, etc.

I conclude then that you should read this book, in the same way that you should read The DaVinci Code, but you’d get by on stopping after the first chapter. As if to support this thought I was offered pirate copies of both these books at a Mumbai traffic light.


kyknoord said...

I must get to this one. I'm dying to find out if miniskirts in the '60s are actually responsible for the downfall of Western Civilisation as we know it.

ATW said...

Absolutely. And I'm sure that the popularity of brazilian wax jobs is going to have some profound effect on our future youth.

Third World Ant said...

Thanks for doing a review for us :)

I have generally resolved to stop drawing conclusions between events A and B - 99% of the time I find I'm wrong, or have vastly oversimplified the situation, usually because there's not sufficient supporting evidence to make these conclusions (can you tell I may have been scarred from my supervisor's review of my thesis?)

ATW said...

I guess that much of what Levitt adds to the debate is that he shows ("proves?") that much conventional wisdom is flawed. eg the money spent on US election campaigns actually makes little difference. Your draconian thesis supervisor may not have let some of Levitt's theories fly though. I must check just how much of his work has been published in peer reviewed journals...

VallyP said...

Some rather startling hypotheses there, Wit. Makes you want to read it just to find out how he manages to justify them...although I feel that a few of them are household 'did you know's' by now, but what I don't know is how those conclusions were drawn..thanks for the review..ever thought of a career in this field? You've managed to pique my interest now in two books that I normally wouldn't even spare more than a cursory glance at..;-)