Friday, July 24, 2009


Shifter here.

Well, I finished Freakanomics. My apologies for not putting the book in the side bar there, I just forgot. I'm also no longer reading The Hero of Ages, but I imagine you'll all survive my inaccuracies for the moment. This post is about Freakanomics.

Overall I'd have to say it was a very enjoyable read. It was also surprisingly easy. I can see why it's sold so well. It's got some surprising and thought provoking content by an obviously very bright pair of authors who make it very easy to follow. Their arguments are indeed novel, and they pull out some interesting data to back up their ideas. I'd say it was definitely worth the read, and the price at Half Price Books.

So there's your quick look. Now let's go a bit more in depth. The authors start the book by saying there is no unifying theme in the chapters that follow, and they are entirely accurate. They cover all kinds of !@#$. From how people name their kids (and the effect of a kid's name on their life) to how to catch a cheating 3rd grade teacher to what is the effect of abortion laws on national crime statistics. In between are tidbits on the death penalty and a very interesting piece on the economy and life style of honest to goodness real crack dealers. Who, by the way, sound really different than the ones you see on TV. Go figure. So who among us would read that list and not say "cool! There's some stuff in there that interests me!" And it does, it does! On the other hand, their promise not to have a theme has one small problem - there's no theme! It's like a reader's digest of micro-economic theory and analysis. So when you finish you're kind of like "what did I just read??" To that extent I would have to say that I preferred the Logic of Life book. It was very similar in applying microeconomic principles, which essentially means using the assumption that people do things for incentives, to everyday situations. But it was organized around a basic idea (namely, that people do things for incentives, and that this rational principle leads to some seemingly irrational behavior). While Logic was not as sparkling as Freak, it was more satisfying at least in that respect.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Freak, though, is that Levitt (one of the authors) is a published and well known economist. By "published" I mean academically published - he does analyses that stand up to peer review and are accepted or at least debated by people who Should Know This Stuff. He sounds like he could be one of those freaking geniuses. I've met about 2 people in my life who I'd put in that category, and I bet he's right up there. So there are all these references to what look to be really interesting papers, which I'm actually considering tracking down. I'm obviously not an economist but I can read stats well enough to follow a fair bit, I think. I suspect the papers may be as interesting in some regards as the book.

Just as with Logic, I found Freak to be full of a huge amount of post-hockery. Meaning that you have no hypothesis, you find a bunch of data, then you create your explanation based on the data. In my field this is a Bad Thing and journal editors will rip your academic throat out for doing it too much. But the more I think of it the more I think that economics, at least as it's practiced by these guys, must operate by entirely different principles. When it comes to real world behavior they, even more than people in my field, can't do experiments. They can barely even try. So all they really can do is study large amounts of data and then guess at what it means. They can make a guess from one set of data, then check another set of data to see if their guess holds up, which isn't a bad way to do it. But it's not quite the same as formulating a hypothesis and then running an experiment to see how it holds up. On the other hand, most of my reseearch is survey research, which generates data but doesn't do any expermental manipulation, so you can make the same argument about my stuff. But you wouldn't do that to me, would you??

As I write this, I'm remembering that Logic referred to some actual experiments that had some interesting results. By experiments, I mean situations in which you put people into controlled settings where you were able to have one set behave under one set of circumstances and another behave under a different set of circumstances. If you've randomly assigned people to your groups, and your groups end up acting very differently from each other, you can conclude it was due to the circumstances that you imposed. But I digress. The thing is while Logic had a few references to such experiments (some of which were by economists, but most weren't), Freak didn't touch them. So it seems the kins of analysis that Levitt and his co-author do are more oriented to the "real world" and thus noncontrolled data.

So there you have it! My rambling, rather uninformative opinion about Freakanomics. It's a good read and it should get an extra point or two for it's cool name. Freak out.

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