Book review: Freakonomics

Everybody knows that economics is about measurement and money and things numerical; that’s why most of us find it so damned dull.

But as approached by offbeat economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven D. Levitt, economics is also “the study of incentives”: what it takes to get us to do a certain thing, or to not do it, as the case may be. Which makes it human, and therefore fascinating.

This is what I love about this delightful new book by Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner: that it comes at things sideways or upside-down or head-on, but never the usual way. I’m still not sold on some of the more radical hypotheses Leavitt coaxes from the data (the link between abortion and falling crime rates being the most widely reviled and quoted), but I’m 100% there on the importance of throwing the numbers against conventional wisdom to see what sticks. The numbers may not always tell the exact truth, but neither do they lie, making them extraordinarily useful in the exploding of myths.

Levitt and Dubner tell fascinating stories about how to combat crappy teaching, bring  down the Ku Klux Klan and what happens when you call your kids “Winner” and “Loser” (answer: not necessarily what you’d think on any count). But really, they’ve written a book celebrating the heart of truth: asking questions, and hacks to stay open to the real answers.

As an interesting side note, the prospect of reading something that seemed like it would rock my world long and hard was too enticing to wait for a library copy to become available, but not enticing enough to get me to part with $26 of my hard-earned money. My break point? A 25¢/day rental from the Beverly Hills Public Library, and pushing the rest of my reading to the bottom of the pile. Some might call that cheap, but I’m betting Levitt would come at it sideways and say that I was already giving up time I’d committed to other reading to explore this book, and therefore it was of great value to me.

And you know what? He’d be right.



  1. “This is what I love about this delightful new book by Levitt”

    Is this how you talk in real life? If so, I want to invite you to my next cocktail party. Why, just last season, I was lamenting to my friend Jody about how nobody sounds like they’re from Connecticut anymore.

    With that out of the way, you are likely to confuse your readers when you say, “they’ve written a book celebrating the heart of truth,” by “throwing the numbers against conventional wisdom to see what sticks.”

    I know you’re an actress, but I’ll tell you anyway that that’s not “science.” That’s a “food fight.”

    Thanks to his “throwing the numbers against conventional wisdom to see what sticks,” Levitt’s been keelhauled over his promotion of “preemptive executions,” and has chosen to duck and cover.

    Now, you might respond, “well, okay. He got caught asserting a faulty conclusion because he missed/ignored easily acquired data that fundamentally stood in the way of his claim, but, abortions aside… the rest of it is good! I mean, don’t you get it? He’s celebrating the heart of truth!”

    Let’s be clear on this. You are an actress, and before that, a marketing employee. Though you, by definition, whore your emotional and spiritual well being out for coin, this probably doesn’t qualify you to speak about economics.

    It’s better for you to stand clear of pop science books (especially economics) and stick with Jane Austin. She deserves your analysis, because she was a woman ahead of her time.

    And don’t forget Wil Wheaton. What a brave writer, and an astonishing man. Certainly the blogosphere’s best kept secret. You need to write more about him.

    Has he written another autobiography? Is he still acting? How does he feel about the death of James Doohan? Did it make him sad? Does Wil’s experiences acting in Star Trek still haunt him? How has he turned those lemons into lemonade?

    These are good questions, and you owe it to your readers to throw yourself against conventional wisdom and see what sticks. Mr. Wheaton deserves nothing less.

    You’re an actress and a blogger. Avoid science, especially pop science, and write about what you know best:

    Fiction and assholes.

  2. So, Mr. Reader, a question: What’s your point?

    It seems like you’re a little jealous of this Wheaton guy (advice: get a life) and as far as the article penned by the right-to-lifer in American Conservative Magazine, uh, weren’t these the same people that said Saddam Hussein was flying one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center? Not that that has anything to do with the analysis of the book Freakonomics, but your comment doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with the analysis of the book either.

    Do you really have cocktail parties? Who shows up? Other people that think Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church on Sunday?

    I gotta go pound some square pegs into round holes now. (PS – check out it’s a blog that rocks – that is, if you think people with triple digit IQs rock)

  3. Dear Mr. Reader:

    Interesting article you linked to. I’m not really clear on *why* you linked to it, since I very clearly stated in my little review that I wasn’t on board with Levitt’s abortion = lowered crime rate theory, but oh, well–I used to be angry and bitter, too, and I understand these qualities often blind one to inconvenient things like truth and facts.

    You are spot on about one thing: having grown up in a family with a goodly clutch of arch-conservative bullies, I have more than a passing familiarity with both fiction and assholes. I can tolerate the former if its served up in good humor, but I’ve had enough of the latter to last me seven lifetimes.

    No real email address + fake name + rudeness = ban. Yay, math!

  4. You’re an actress and a blogger. Avoid science, especially pop science, and write about what you know best: Fiction and assholes.

    BTW, I guess since you’re not allowed to write about pop science, at least you can write about poop science.


Comments are closed.