Freakonomics Thinking

FreakI quickly devoured this short book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  Freakonomics “relies on data rather than hunch or ideology to understand how the world works.”  This appeals to me since I try to make decisions based on evidence, and get a kick out of discovering that what I think I know ain’t always so.  Readers should not feel alone in holding mistaken assumptions; Levitt and Dubner note that many of the “experts” we hear from in the media are more noteworthy for confidence than accuracy.

Think Like a Freak offers to teach anyone how to solve problems.  “Solving problems is hard. If a given problem still exists, you can bet that a lot of people have already come along and failed to solve it.” So we need more people who can find root causes of problems.

The book is easy to read, filled with delightful examples of their method, and only occasionally bumps into controversial issues that elicit strong emotions.

They concentrate on problems that are entertaining. For example:

  • Why a kicker in World Cup level play might choose a strategy that leads to fewer goals,
  • How they blew their chance to offer a future British Prime Minister advice,
  • Why medieval trial-by-ordeal often identified the guilty, and
  • Why demanding venues provide M&Ms with the brown candies removed was a practical move on the part of a rock band.

They emphasize that conventional wisdom is often wrong and correlation does not equal causality.  This leads to a controversial issue that they have addressed in greater detail before. 

Crime rates dropped starting in the 1990s in America, and they present evidence that legalizing abortion in the 1970s prevented the birth of over a million children a year who would have grown up in circumstances that lead them into crime.  “It can be unsettling, even frightening, to stare a root cause in the face.”

I especially enjoyed the chapter on “How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded.”  To do so, understand that ideology and herd thinking are more important to people’s positions than facts and logic.  If your argument doesn’t resonate with the other person, you’ll lose.  This reminds me of other reviews on this blog.  Levitt and Dubner say you need to “tell stories” (I like the way Steven Pinker puts this thought; he says “if narratives without statistics are blind, statistics without narratives are empty”).  Don’t pretend your argument is perfect, because “your opponent will never buy it – nor should he.”  Understand that “the opposing argument almost certainly has value.”  And “name-calling is a really bad idea.”  This blog had presented that advice in the past, too.

While everything here may not be new and not everyone agrees with all Freakonomics analyses, the book is put together well with wonderful examples.  I recommend the book whether you want to understand others or (better yet) shake up your own thinking.

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