I’ve just finished reading a book called “Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything”, written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. (This book has gotten a lot of press attention recently, but I picked it upmainly because of the mention in another outstanding book, “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell, which I also highly recommend.) In Freakonomics, economist Levitt takes an interesting look at a variety of issues from a fresh perspective — a perspective made possible only by ignoring conventional wisdom and focusing only on the data. He then uses this perspective to find answers to questions that most people don’t think to ask. Questions like:
- Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?
- What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?
- Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?
- How much do parents really matter?
And perhaps the one that will cause the biggest stir:
- What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime?
I won’t spoil the book by providing the answers as Levitt sees them. Instead, I’ll merely point you to the book with a very high recommendation. In their continuing effort to look at things from a different perspective, the authors have created their own blog where they continue to explore these issues and, more interestingly, engage in discussions of their conclusions with readers. (I’m convinced that Levitt is keeping some sort of tally on the types of responses he receives from this interaction; it will likely be a new data set for some as-yet-unasked question.)
On their web site, you’ll find a brief discussion of the book (an “explanation”, reviews, and more), some background on both authors, related articles, links, and a few other items. The most intriguing thing, however, is the author’s blog. Part snapshot of current thoughts, part spyglass to Levitt’s thinking, part open letter to and from the readers, it serves as a fascinating compliment to the book, providing an ongoing dialogue of the conclusions reached. One example relates to a recent Today Show appearance. On it the authors briefly explained Levitt’s conclusions about how realtors approach pricing and selling their clients’ homes versus their own. The data from 100,000 real estate transactions suggests that realtors will price your home slightly less than they would if it was theirs, suggesting that they’re more interested in getting a quick transaction than they are the top dollar. Response to this conclusion has been interesting, including a letter from the National Association of Realtors that is posted on Freakonomics (along with the authors’ response.)
The blog is written much like the book; the authors make compelling (and occasionally complicated) arguments accessible and understandable for everyone. Complex — and seemingly unrelated — issues can be boiled down to the basics and with all of the non-correlating data stripped away, their true nature shines through.
I recommend that you pick up the book the first chance you get, and if you’re looking for something to tide you over until you get out, spend some time at Freakonomics. But keep an open mind and be prepared for some controversial answers to questions you hadn’t thought to ask.