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by Steven Levitt - 23 Mar 2008
| Great book, but read with care - February 26, 2008
By Jeff Barnaby "Jeff Barnaby" (Richmond, Virginia) - © Amazon.com
This is a fascinating and readable book that offers an interesting perspective on that which we, the general public, generally accept as the truth. In fact, it is so readable that one must take caution not to fall into the trap of believing the authors' claims based merely on the fast and enjoyable writing style that tends to lull critical thinking skills to sleep and make a person feel smart simply for having read the book. Moreover, the spirit of the book, a deliberate thumbing of the nose towards existing beliefs surrounding usually serious subjects such as abortion, crime, drug dealers, parenting, and cheating, leads to a sense of optimism for the authors' cause. Frequently, one finds one's self wanting to believe everything in this book because it is so enjoyable to read. Bearing this in mind, Freakonomonics is a worthwhile book with a unique perspective on a variety of topics.
While Levitt and Dubner's arguments are not without supporting facts, there is room for counterpoint on most of the topics that get examined. Still, the book's approach of assaulting the mountains of data supporting years of conventional wisdom with simple observations about incentives and human nature is consistently effective. Also in the authors' defense, many of the ideas put forth are frequently offensive to a broad range of people. For example, the most talked about idea in the book, the notion that the drop in crime during the mid 1990's is a result of legalized abortion, offends conservative types because it appears to be an argument in favor of abortion. Liberals take offense to this notion because it suggests that a significant number of abortions are performed on poor inept mothers-to-be and much of late twentieth century urban crime has been the result of their parental incompetence. Whether or not the argument is correct, and there is some reasonable evidence presented in the book to suggest that it might be, the authors are not pandering to any particular group for fast and easy support and openly tell the reader on more than one occasion that what lies ahead is not for the squeamish.
Ultimately, this book succeeds because it has a genuine point that is correct and works as a common thread that runs through the variety of topics. The point is that conventional wisdom is frequently wrong. Specifically it is wrong because it is founded upon statistics which are based on correlations which often get confused with cause. And correlation and cause are not the same thing - because something indicates something else does not mean that same something causes that same something else. An example from the book tells of a government program basing a free book distribution program on the strong positive correlation between student reading scores and the quantity of books in student homes. The book distribution program was a failure because it mistook the quantity of books in the student homes as a cause of higher student reading scores rather than a correlation - smarter families like to read more, hence they have books in their homes. Simply increasing the quantity of books in a home will not make a child read more, or at a higher level. This example is typical of the ideas and arguments that permeate this book. Again, the authors are up front about the fact that a good deal of the material is not for the easily offended.
This is a tricky book to evaluate. On one hand, it is as "five-star" a book as has ever been written regarding its page-turner writing style - think Da Vince Code in the world of non-fiction and economics. On the other hand, it could be penalized for perhaps trying to use that writing style to sneak one by the reader. Ultimately, this book ends up as strongly recommended. The reason for which is this: The idea for this book started out as a controversial graduate thesis in Economics by one of the authors, Stephen Levitt. The fact that it was controversial should be enough to indicate that the material has its merits, some of which get discussed in the book. The fact that someone managed to make something so enjoyable and interesting to read out of an Economics thesis, while maintaining integrity, is enough to warrant high praise from the most cynical critic - read it, keep your guard up, and enjoy it - 5 stars.
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