Freakonomics What's all the fuss about?
I got a lot of books for Christmas. I can feel smug knowing that I've used the rampant commercialism of the festive season to "feed my mind". In January I've worked my way through the latest Terry Pratchett, Jared Diamond's excellent Collapse, James Lovelock's Revenge of Gaia, all four of Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey series, and I've just finished Freakonomics by Economist Steven D. Levitt and Journalist Stephen J. Dubner. A quick glance at the cover of the paperback I unwrapped on the morning of December 25th lead me to believe that I was in for a truly life-changing read. Dubbed "a phenomenon" by a critic in The Observer, "Brilliant" by The Sunday Telegraph, and "Non-stop fun" by The Evening Standard, how could I fail to be excited, like a kid with a new book, at the prospect of broadening my mental horizons with such a revolutionary piece of work? Well Ive just finished it and, frankly, I'm very disappointed.
For those who haven't read it, or are blissfully unaware of its existence, Freakonomics claims to have no unifying theme, other than one economist's supposedly innovative way of looking at the world (the journalist appears to have tagged along to supply the not-inconsiderable hype surrounding this view of the world). OK, so what does this radical new way of looking at the world reveal for us? Well, not an awful lot as far as I can tell. Written in a series of chapters, it's not un-entertaining, and did occasionally have me chuckling or even raising my eyebrows in surprise, which is something I suppose, but not enough. The basic premise, (or unifying theme if you will, despite the claimed non-existence of such a thing) is Levitt's identifying interesting or surprising causality or correlation in various social phenomena, through the minute examination of, occasionally obscure, sources of data. So what does he discover? Apparently Sumo wrestlers cheat quite a bit to further their careers! Yes, and? There doesn't appear to be an and', that's it. Sumo wrestlers have an incentive to cheat, and so they do, much like many other professional sportspeople. Apparently it's surprising because Sumo is supposed to be based in honour, and such a pivotal part of Japanese tradition. Well lots of sports have a fine history of tradition and culture, and lots of sportspeople cheat, so you'll excuse me if I don't feel particularly revolutionised. Perhaps this example within the book was to there to make the point that much of what we do in life relies on our incentive to do it. My word Holmes, I think you've hit on it! Similarly teachers in the US cheat a lot. Yes, apparently performance-related bonuses linked to the results their pupils get on standardised tests has lead to some teachers influencing those results by more than simply enthusiastic teaching. Again, I find myself asking "so what?". OK, in this case close scrutiny of certain data sets have actually lead to this cheating being exposed, which is always a good thing, but is the fact that performance-related pay for teachers leads to cheating really so surprising? Personally I don't think so.
Levitt is perhaps most famous, and in some cases most vilified, for his theory that the drop in crime witnessed in the US in the 1990s is due to the verdict of Roe vs. Wade in the 1970s, and the subsequent legalisation of abortion. Essentially he says that once abortion was legalised many underprivileged, unwanted children were not being born, and hence not going on to commit crimes later in their lives, hence the drop in crime coinciding with a time at which those unborn children would have just started out on a life of crime, had they not been aborted. Now this theory has caused massive controversy, understandably, because it would never have been allowed to simply sit on its own as the pure observation that it is. Once an observation like that has been made a lot of people are going to have a problem with it, or use it as an argument for what is essentially eugenics, right? Well, personally, I don't think so. I'm not denying that some people have raised those points in connection with Levitt's observation, but what actual impact does it have on policy, or simply on the way people behave? I would argue, very little. All current arguments around abortion focus on the rights of the child compared to the rights of the mother, will there now be a school of thought that says that since abortion has been linked to a drop in crime that should now be considered as part of the argument? No. Arguments for and against abortion are not about empirical evidence. Much as the debate has raged around when the foetus becomes conscious and similar ideas, ultimately it comes down to whether you think the unborn child is more important than the mother (a crude way of looking at it perhaps, but I reckon that pretty much sums it up). Crime levels don't come into it, and never will, Levitt's observation is a moot point, it doesn't make any difference. It's undoubtedly interesting, has sparked debates on its truth and plenty of controversy, but it will not alter anything, any policy or any wider debate on crime or abortion. Again I'm left with the feeling I had after the "revelations" of cheating in teaching and Sumo wrestling so what?
There are other chapters about Estate Agents not necessarily operating for the benefit of their clients (in other news, the Pope is Catholic), the Ku Klux Klan are apparently corrupt and not at all nice (what's that bear doing in the woods?), and then there are two chapters on parenting. The first questions how parents influence how their children will turn out, whether it's down to their practical intervention as parents, or simply the people the parents are (effectively it's another nature vs. nurture argument, and nature wins). The argument is convincing, and like all the subjects of the book is put forward with lots of convincing numbers. Then there's a bizarre chapter on the names parents give their children. The subject is introduced with some amusing anecdotes, and not long after the raft of data is presented, again, very convincingly. It wasn't until I finished the chapter that I looked back and realised that either (a) I'd entirely missed the point or (b) there hadn't been one. There was lots of stuff about the names black parents give their children, and the names white parents give their children, the contrasts between the two, and the gradual filtering of names through demographic groups and all that kind of thing, then suddenly the chapter finished and so did the book. What was the point of it all? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe it was about parents trying to influence how their child will turn out by giving them a particular name, personally I couldn't care less whether they do or don't. That chapter was entirely lost on me I'm afraid.
The book as a whole didn't fare much better. It's overwhelmingly US-centric (the one exception being the piece about Sumo wrestlers), which isn't inherently a problem obviously, but the book seems to be marketed within and without as revolutionary way of looking at the world. It's not. With the one exception already stated I'd argue that all the phenomena observed are particularly American. Maybe I'm just being to much of a cynical Brit (perhaps if Levitt had looked at British names I'd have been interested, but I doubt it) to really appreciate the book's sentiment, but I suspect that the "lack of a unifying theme" is really a lack of any kind of theme. There just doesn't seem to be any point, if all this revolutionary way of looking at things teaches us is that sportspeople cheat, abortion affects crime levels, and that obsessive parenting makes little difference, then I'd argue that it's not teaching us very much. Freakonomics may at some point provide some real insight into the world around us, and the way we behave in it. It certainly hasn't yet, and until it does, it's a passing curiosity.