[This review was published in the Fall 2006 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 367-369.]

  

Book Review 

 

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

William Morrow, 2005 

 

            This book applies statistics and independent reasoning to a wide range of topics—to “whatever freakish curiosities that may occur to us”—for the express purpose of making the reader “more skeptical of the conventional wisdom,” so that he “may begin looking for hints as to how things aren’t quite what they seem.”

            Although it is entertaining and highly readable, the book thus has a serious purpose.  We live in part in an age of science and reason, but the fact looms large that much of what we “know” is in the form of shibboleths and half-truths.  It should be the task of all objective scholars to question the unsupported assertions to seek the truth.  Unfortunately, when a young economist like Steven Levitt sets out to do so, it is rare enough that his book takes on a celebratory air, as though he is doing (as he is) something unusual for an economist and social scientist.

            Steven Levitt is on the economics faculty at the University of Chicago, and is a winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, “awarded every two years to the best American economist under forty.”  Because he has an aversion to the drudgery of book-writing, he has teamed up with a professional writer, Stephen J. Dubner; and it’s a happy collaboration.

            Here’s an example of how the two make hard data and a questioning mentality into something fascinating and informative: “Compare the four hundred [children’s] lives that a few swimming pool precautions might save to the number of lives saved by far noisier crusades: child-resistant packaging (an estimated fifty lives a year), flame-retardant pajamas (ten lives), keeping children away from airbags in cars (fewer than five young children a year have been killed by airbags since their introduction), and safety drawstrings on children’s clothing (two lives).”

            Levitt argues that economics is a science of measurement.  It is important to know “what to measure and how to measure it.”  Probably the most significant application of this, one that can serve as a corrective to much meaningless work done within the social sciences today, is when the authors tell about a young sociologist who discovered that multiple choice survey questionnaires are laughed at when given to residents in African-American public housing projects, and that the best way really to find out what those residents are thinking and doing is to become “embedded” with them for a long period of time.  The sociologist lived with a black drug gang for several years—and produced insights that could not be gotten any other way.  The story of his experiences with the gang is itself worth the price of the book.

             This is part of what is actually a pretty simple mind-set.  Levitt stresses, as economists are wont to do, that incentives are pivotal to human behavior; and on this basis, he gives some chilling details about how “experts use information to serve their own agenda.”  He shows, for example, how a real estate sales agent selling a home has virtually no incentive to obtain top dollar for the seller the agent represents.  The same truth-seeking cynicism is applied to cheating by some teachers within the Chicago Public Schools when they are desperate to have good student-performance results, and—oddly enough—to the consensual throwing of matches that occurs among sumo wrestlers in Japan.  Other points Levitt emphasizes are that “correlations don’t establish causation” (a truism often repeated and not infrequently violated) and that “the conventional wisdom is often wrong.”

            Levitt’s statistical iconoclasm inevitably leads him (since he’s an honest scholar) into some conclusions that are, at least mildly, not politically correct.  He has a rather long discussion, for example, of the history of the Ku Klux Klan and of lynching in the United States.  He runs the risk of having his works barred entry to Canada as “hate literature” when he reaches conclusions such as the following: “The statistics reveal at least three noteworthy facts.  The first is the obvious decrease in lynchings over time.  The second is the absence of a correlation between lynchings and Klan membership: there were actually more lynchings of blacks between 1900 and 1909, when the Klan was dormant, than during the 1920s, when the Klan had millions of members… Third, relative to the size of the black population, lynchings were exceedingly rare.”  For an honest scholar to reach such conclusions, based on the data, is, of course, not hate literature.  But that fact alone offers little protection in today’s world.

            Another example is Levitt’s willingness, despite the overall non-political and non-ideological quality of the book, to unmask fabrications by activists for women’s rights and for the homeless.  “Women’s rights advocates… have hyped … that one in three American women will in their lifetime be a victim of rape or attempted rape.  (The actual figure is more like one in eight—but the advocates know it would take a callous person to publicly dispute their claims.)”  And as to the assertion once made by activist Mitch Snyder that there were approximately three million homeless people in the United States, Levitt doesn’t blanch at reporting that “ultimately, when Snyder was pressed on his figure of 3 million homeless, he admitted that it was a fabrication.”

            Where Levitt has apparently heard the loudest complaints, however, has been from his analysis of the causes of the unexpected (by experts) fall in the rate of violent crime in the United States, beginning in the early 1990s.  He examines several of the theories propounded as explanations, finding most of them lacking.  What he does notice as a cause, however, is that the legalization of abortion following the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade caused a sharp drop in the number of unwanted children born.  It is unwanted children, Levitt argues, who grow up with the greatest incidence of criminality.  By the early 1990s, a generation of young men reached late adolescence that included far fewer potential criminals than before.  Needless to say, by adducing this explanation for the sudden drop in the crime rate, Levitt was not saying anything about whether he personally supports or opposes abortion.  But, as is so common when controversial subjects are discussed, people don’t want to hear anything, no matter how objectively true, that runs against the grain of their own predilections.  In this case, it was opponents of abortion who saw their ox as being gored.

            Many of the subjects in Freakonomics are merely interesting and valuable, and have nothing to do with controverted issues.  There is quite a long sociological analysis, say, of names people most commonly give their babies.  It seems that when the well-to-do adopt a new name it eventually works its way down to common usage among the less well-to-do before eventually seeming too commonplace for everyone’s taste.

             Levitt is just at the start of what might be hoped is a long career.  We wish him continued courage and devotion to objective science along the way, and somehow some immunity from the “slings and arrows” that a petulant humanity visits upon those who are too scrupulously honest.

 

                                                                                                  Dwight D. Murphey