Book Review: Freakonomics

I recently finished reading the much-acclaimed Freakonomics, written by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. I must say that it was a very enjoyable read. The two authors set out to describe statistical corrolations that seem to evade or defy logic, and then go one step further and justify the relationship. For example, they present a very cogent case for why the best thing that ever happened to reduce crime and murder in the US in the mid-1990s was a 1973 Supreme Court case entitled "Roe vs Wade".

They look at why crack dealers live with their mothers, despite their supposed wealth. In another politically incorrect vein, they exam whether the names we give our children affects their prosperity (It's correlated, but not causal, in case you were wondering).

The book lost me on two points: length and moralizing. It was too long. They could have made the same arguments in about half as much space. They are simply two very verbose men. Normally I approve of insane verbosity, but in this case, I felt that they could have spent the space more wisely looking at other bizarre correlations. Much of the length was spent reinterating what they had already said. I suspect that some readers might need reminders from time to time, but I am not such a reader.

Regarding the second, moralizing, they actually claim that they are not (moralizing). But like any good read, it would lack teeth if it didn't have a take-home message. I think they could have saved themselves the nitpickers scourge by avoiding the sentence "Morality is how we would like the world to be, statistics describes it as it really it." Well, no. That's just not true. They're smart enough to know better, and smart enough to know that it makea a handy soundbite.

They attribute moral weight to the objects of their study, though they do try to remain politically neutral. They stray off course occasionally. For example, when on the last page of the chapter on Roe vs Wade, they seem to try to throw a bone to anti-abortion activists (as obviously, whatever you feel about abortion, the US is safer because it is safe and legal). They suggest that if a child is worth 100 fetuses, then the lives saved, statistically, aren't worth it (i.e. it's uneconomical to protect lives by killing so many, even when 'life' is fractionalized). They never justify how they arrived at 1:100, merely throwing it out for the sake of making a mathematical argument. That's called moralizing. That's OK. I think the book is good because of it, but it loses a notch because they claim they don't do it.

I've heard they are working on a sequel, called Superfreakonomics, and I look forward to reading it. Looking for correlation where nobody else sees it is fascinating and rewarding. I mean, who knew that teachers in Chigago were answering their students' standardized tests? Or that Sumo wrestling is rigged? Or that Superman defeated the KKK? All really good stories and very engaging reading.

1 Comments:

At 8/23/05, 2:16 AM, Anonymous Saar Drimer said...

I'm glad you liked it :)
You should follow up with the authors' through their weblog:
http://www.freakonomics.com/blog.php
It's mostly good.

 

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