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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Freakonomics — Book Review

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics is an interesting, if not overly practical, look at the world. Mostly Levitt’s work, it takes a statistical approach to a disjointed set of questions with the aim of debuncting convential wisdom on various subjects. Delivering on some of the subtitle’s promise, the book opens readers’ eyes as “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.”

Levitt relies almost exclusively on data as he answers questions clearly intended to grab attention. Why do drug dealers live with their mothers? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime? Do parents skills really matter? Why do real estate agents take longer to sell their own homes than those of their clients?

The most intriguing chapter explained how teachers in the Chicago Public School System, offered financial incentives for their students achieving higher scores on standardized tests, were caught cheating their butts off. (Not all of them, of course.) The methods used to catch the cheating teachers — not the students — were rather ingenious, and well detailed. However, that didn’t seem like it was supposed to be the fascinating part, which is why the book comes up a bit short.

The problem was that Levitt and Dubner seemed like they thought they were uncovering some fascinating human “truths” that would shock and amaze. Yet, their main conclusion came down to one thing that’s not so shocking — people like money. Or, more to the point, people like money enough to cheat to get it.

Ya think?

Ok, I may be over simplifying a bit. However, there did seem to be this inherent suggestion that they were offering up some tremendously useful knowledge regarding human behavior. But they just weren’t. Besides that, everything was based on incredible amounts of information, which I feel safe saying readers would never look into. Though there’s no concrete reason to feel there’s something wrong with that, it may leave many feeling left out or, at least, skeptical. It’s simply too difficult to really judge the assertions being made.

In fact, one of the few parts that might have offered something the reader could take away from the book (besides pushing your next real estate agent a bit harder) essentially suggests that parenting has little affect on how kids turn out. I’m not a parent, so I can honestly say that my opinion that this part had plenty of holes isn’t based on defensiveness. In fact, the authors didn’t seem to buy it either as they qualified the hell out of it.

I also had plenty of questions about the assertion that Roe v. Wade, or legalized abortion, lead to a dramatic drop in crime. Certainly the argument was very strong that children who otherwise would have been born were the likely candidates to continue the crime wave. Yet, other factors, such as an improving economy, were too easily dismissed as contributing elements.

If you’re looking for some real insights to your fellow man, Freakonomics will have you looking elsewhere. Otherwise, read it for fun while looking for something better.

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