Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (William Morrow, New York, 2005)

Economist Steven D. Levitt enjoys standing a problem on its head to see what might shake out of its pockets; Freakonomics is an exhibit of his garnered treasures. Levitt takes on anything that piques his interest: from how to detect teachers who cheat on their students' exams to how legalized abortion affected crime rates, from what really broke up the Ku Klux Klan to the financial workings of inner city gangs, from why a swimming pool is more dangerous than a gun to parenting skills and naming trends.

Freakonomics is both fascinating and frustrating. Levitt asks very important questions, offers evidence that "conventional wisdom" is often anything but wise, and perhaps does his greatest service in encouraging people to rethink their unquestioned assumptions.

However, when he deals with subjects in which I have more than the usual knowledge and experience, such as parenting and education, I can see holes big enough to send an elephant stampede through. For example, he considers various factors that might or might not affect how well a child does in school (as measured by standardized test scores), and concludes that a mother's employment outside of the home during his preschool years makes no difference at all. But without taking into consideration what the "at home" mother did during those years -- did she spend a lot of time with her child? did she take him with her, talk with him, teach him? did she plop him in front of Sesame Street while she talked on the phone? was he kept in a playpen while she watched soap operas? was he watched by a nanny while she played tennis? -- the statistics he used are pretty much meaningless. Similarly, in concluding that regularly taking your child to museums has equally little affect on his school performance, he neglects to consider the difference between a child who interacts with his parents as they traverse the science museum and one who runs from one exhibit to the next, pressing buttons willy-nilly but never staying long enough in one place to learn whatever the pressed button might have had to convey. Or between parents who prepare a child for a visit to an art museum and those who simply drag him from one picture to the next until they can no longer put up with his bored misbehavior.

Despite occasional problems with the conclusions, Freakonomics is a good exercise in applying the tools of economics to thinking differently about what "everybody knows." You can find out more at the Freakonomics website.
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 16, 2006 at 12:13 pm | Edit
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