Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book Review: Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics is one of those books way outside my normal reading pleasure that I have thoroughly enjoyed this summer. “Rogue” economist Steven Levitt has teamed up with journalist Stephen Dubner to produce a remarkable “Seinfeldish” story of correlations and observations – that really has no point, other than the numbers don’t lie (and you do).

Did you know your kids are one hundred times more likely to drown in a neighbour’s pool than be shot by accidental gunplay? Have you ever considered that the lowering of the crime rate in America has more to do with abortion than crime policies? Levitt’s skill is in asking questions of the numbers that others have overlooked and making comparisons that no one has yet considered. For instance, while it is true fewer people die on average in planes than automobiles, that number is based on an unfair comparison of data. What one really ought to do is compare deaths per hour of travel… and you will discover that your chances of an untimely travel death are about the same.

Beyond these somewhat useless (albeit fascinating) comparisons, Levitt makes the best case yet outside of the Bible in proving, “all men are liars.” Exactly what they choose to lie about and what they are willing to risk is all a matter of complex inter-relationships, but all men are prone to deceive and advance their own cause. The same is true with cheating. The numbers don’t lie!

Levitt also draws a careful line between risks that scare us and risks that kill us. We are prone to be horrible risk-assessors, and that’s why politicians get elected and your real estate agent sells for less money than she could.

Quoting J. K. Galbraith, Levitt notes, “…we adhere, as to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.” Hence, I observe, someone can hear the Gospel many times and reject its logic and sweetness all because it does not align with what they already believe to be true. We like what we know, what we think makes sense out of the world. Children with Muslim parents generally stick to Islam – that kind of thing. But our comfortableness with a certain idea or set of ideas is not what makes it true.

This is a great book for preachers who want to prove “by the numbers” our propensity to lie and cheat. And it is a great book for parents who live in fear of things they really should just get over. Watch out for some distasteful language at points but enjoy the humour and debunking by a nice post-modern mind – i.e. a man who is great at identifying our problems and does not fall into the trap of promoting more lame solutions.