Freakonomics

December 23rd, 2007 § 1 comment

I’m probably the last person on Earth to read Freakonomics, given the almost cult-like status it has enjoyed since it was published in early 2005. Even though it’s a quick reading, I decided to wait for a time when I would be able to dedicated more thought to it than just breezing through its pages.

The book, written in a partnership between Steven D. Levitt, an economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist, reflects, almost in its entirety, the theories created by Levitt, which are then described in a more simple way by Dubner. Much like The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell similarly themed book, Freakonomics quickly grew in notoriety among the intelligentsia because of its allegedly non-conventional explanations for phenomena that had long intrigued and defined the scientific community’s abilities to explain them. Examples of those phenomena include the reasons for corruption among white-collar workers and why crime declined in the US beginning in the 90s.

Particularly, although I enjoyed the book, Levitt and Dubner’s treatment of the themes presented in the book was too superficial and lacking in the more intriguing analysis provided, for example, by Gladwell in his two more famous books.

At the core of Freakonomics are those four ideas:

  • Experts will use their knowledge for their own benefit
  • Incentives are the bases of the modern economy;
  • Conventional wisdom is often wrong; and
  • Small events can have profound consequences

Of the four ideas expressed above, none is particularly revealing or new. In fact, if one has spent more than a couple minutes reflecting on how the world really works, those four ideas are self-evident. Spending an entire book trying to demonstrate them is a pointless exercise.

The only winning point for the book are the cases used by the authors to demonstrate the aforementioned ideas. Using curious comparisons–for example, what do school-teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common–one or more specific real-world example are present for each of the points above showing how, in many cases, conventional wisdom is wrong.

Granted, we, as a species, tend to cling to those explanations we hear the most. But whenever subjects like those presented by Levitt and Dubner are involved, we rarely do that. Weaving both kinds of examples is just a way to make those less interesting cases to seem more than what they really are: myth.

Freakonomics lends itself very well to controversies, as the authors are quick to point. Not without a certain amount of irony, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a glowing blurb for Freakonomics even though the reasons he presents in The Tipping Point for the decline of organized crime in America are directly at odds–and are even ridiculed–by Freakonomics. A lot of discussions has ensued about this particular point on the Web including a quick exchange between the authors involved (1, 2, 3), which, unsurprisingly, ended with both parties agreeing to disagree.

Although I’m still able to recommend Freakonomics as an interesting reading, based on the intellectual estimulation one can derived from analyzing what Levitt and Dubner are saying, I must confess myself disappointed by the book, especially after the glowing reviews the book earned. The Tipping Point, at least the way I see, provides a much more interesting reading since it attempts to create a framework to explain the changes. Freakomonics could certainly have used a lot more content and analysis. At the moment, however, I can’t say I find what Levitt and Dubner wrote so surprising.

§ One Response to Freakonomics

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