Freakonomics

Freakonomics, a book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  I heard about this book a while ago (from the Writing Excuses podcast) and it sounded interesting, so I checked it out.  (Note, I’m a nerd, and I think nerdy stuff like this is really interesting.)

First off, I loved the book, but I had a huge problem with the title.  Freakonomics makes you think that this is a book about Economics, it isn’t.  I’ve also seen it listed as a Business book, it isn’t.  The subtitle for the book is “a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.”  The reason that he’s considered a “rogue” economist is because he’s really doing work that falls more into Social Psychology.  This book uses different terms obviously but it would work wonderfully as a textbook for a section of a 300 level college course in Social Psychology.  Which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.  So my category for this book for it’s listing is going to be psychology, where it will fit in my bookshelf wonderfully beside Malcolm Gladwell’s books.

Being a Psychology major, I’ve read quite a few of the “pop-psychology” books that have come out in recent years, Gladwell’s work, Snoop, Think, Mistakes Were Made, and a couple of others, and this book belongs with all of those.  This is actually one of the few books written by a serious researcher in the field that is very consumable by the general public (while Gladwell is a brilliant writer, he isn’t doing the research, Levitt is).  The reason it works is because of their collaboration.  Levitt is doing the research, Dubner is translating it into terms we can all understand, combined their writing on this topic is on the same level as Gladwell’s, which is something I never really thought I’d say.

The topics in this book are listed as odd questions that most people would never really think to ask (which is where Levitt is a genius, he asks the questions).  The first chapter deals with the question “what do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?”  The answer, they both cheat, a lot, and have very good reasons for doing it.  The second chapter is the question “how is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?”  To which the answer of course is that they both relied on an information imbalance to put themselves in the best possible situations.  The last chapter that I’ll discuss here is chapter 4, which asks “where have all the criminals gone?”  This chapter deals with the very different idea that legalizing abortions in the 1970’s led to a decrease in overall crime 20 years later in the 1990’s.

Everything that they talk about in this book is backed up by numbers, and as they say in the book, numbers don’t lie.  The book was a very interesting read and dealt with a lot of stuff that I never really thought about before, and some things that I had wondered about before (chapter 6 which deals with names of children and the divide between “white” names and “black” names and how it can affect the child later in life).

If I were to give any criticism about the book it would be that it isn’t really focused on a single area of study, in this way it’s really more like What the Dog Saw than Blink (both Gladwell books, What the Dog Saw was a collection of articles he had written for The New Yorker, Blink dealt with a single subject).

Either way, the book is a fun, quick read that I’m glad I picked up.

Overall Grade

A very well written book that you don’t need a PhD to understand, even if the author has one.

10/10

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