Freakonomics

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I love statistics, it always amazes me what you can find out it you have enough data. Pulling meaning from a pile of answers and numbers fascinates me. I’ve always had an idea to look into the statistics of which sex is the safer driver. General thinking is that women are, which is why they get lower rates on car insurance, but I bet if you took into account the amount of time on the road, average miles per year, distances travelled, time of accident and location (especially compared in relation to where they live and work) you’d actually find that men and women are much closer than current thinking puts them and that it’s because men spend more time on the road (on average) and more time in unfamiliar locations, that more men are involved in accidents.

Anyway, my first thought when reading Freakonomics, was about the subtitle: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. I thought economics was all about studying economies and money, but it’s not, it’s a social science, more specifically, it can be defined as a “study of human choice behavior.” I’d actually tie it very closely to statistics, asking questions and pulling meaning from a sample of data, though economics is aimed purely at data provided by people.

I’m guessing, but it looks like Dubner, a journalist, puts the spin on the book and ties it all together while Levitt supplied the studies and expertise that make it up. And what a range of studies they are. Covering everything from spotting which teachers were amending their children’s test scores in an effort to make them look better to the economics of a drug gang to Ku Klux Klan membership, parenting and crime.

All of this is presented in an easy-to-follow way, mainly by removing any of the science behind it, which means you’re often left taking the authors’ word that they are right and the people they’re naysaying are wrong rather than the other way around. You’re very much being spoon fed the results in a way not disimilar to how someone like Michael Moore constructs his documentaries, it feels like every sentence should end with an exclamation mark or that every statement is accusing someone.

I’m suprised the book hasn’t courted more controversy. Much of the book is about putting right, using anaylsis of the data, things which many people have built their lives, careers or reputations on. Levitt dismisses many of the people who comment on crime, for example, showing what really makes crime drop (maybe some governments should read it), he shows how real estate agents make more money on their own homes than they’re prepared to for their customers and how many of the things parents have been told make their kids smarter have no impact whatsoever, flying in the face of many well-held beliefs.

Overall I liked the book, and I was as stunned by many of the outcomes as anyone else, it got me wanting to exclaim things here and there, to point out to my local MP that more police really would make a difference, but there’s also that nagging doubt that just because I’m told something is true doesn’t mean it actually is, a statement from a couple of other economists to verify that what the book states is supported by the evidence would be nice. The amount of hyperball does make me ask questions. Maybe that’s what it takes to get through these days, maybe it took all that hype to get the book published and to raise it above the normal fair to get people reading it.

If the book doesn’t make you worry about all those organisations collecting data about you (your bank, phone company, all those stores with loyalty cards, not to mention the government) then maybe we weren’t reading the same book, because it certainly shows how powerful a large set of data can be to start drawing conclusions about people, even if they’re the wrong ones, and use it to convince others.

Reading back this review, it doesn’t sound as positive as I found the book, it really is great, thought provoking, interesting, entertainingly written and a good look inside a subject many people know little about and normally consider very boring. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you choose to read it.

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Reviewed: 22nd July 2006

Rating: 5 out of 5 5 out of 5 5 out of 5 5 out of 5 5 out of 5