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Sunday, April 2, 2006

Reading List: Freakonomics

Levitt, Steven D. and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics. New York: William Morrow, 2005. ISBN 0-06-073132-X.
Finally—a book about one of my favourite pastimes: mining real-world data sets for interesting correlations and searching for evidence of causality—and it's gone and become a best-seller! Steven Levitt is a University of Chicago economics professor who excels in asking questions others never think to pose such as, “If dealing crack is so profitable, why do most drug dealers live with their mothers?” and “Why do real estate agents leave their own houses on the market longer than the houses of their clients?”, then crunches the numbers to answer them, often with fascinating results. Co-author Stephen Dubner, who has written about Levitt's work for The New York Times Magazine, explains Levitt's methodologies in plain language that won't scare away readers inclined to be intimidated by terms such as “multiple regression analysis” and “confidence level”.

Topics run the gamut from correlation between the legalisation of abortion and a drop in the crime rate, cheating in sumo wrestling in Japan, tournament dynamics in advancement to managerial positions in the crack cocaine trade, Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan, the generation-long trajectory of baby names from prestigious to down-market, and the effects of campaign spending on the outcome of elections. In each case there are surprises in store, and sufficient background to understand where the results came from and the process by which they were obtained. The Internet has been a godsend for this kind of research: a wealth of public domain data in more or less machine-readable form awaits analysis by anybody curious about how it might fit together to explain something. This book is an excellent way to get your own mind asking such questions.

My only quibble with the book is the title: “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.” The only thing freaky about Levitt's work is that so few other professional economists are using the tools of their profession to ask and answer such interesting and important questions. And as to “rogue economist”, that's a rather odd term for somebody with degrees from Harvard and MIT, who is a full professor in one of the most prestigious departments of economics in the United States, recipient of the Clark Medal for best American economist under forty, and author of dozens of academic publications in the leading journals. But book titles, after all, are marketing tools, and the way this book is selling, I guess the title is doing its job quite well, thank you. A web site devoted to the book contains additional information and New York Times columns by the authors containing additional analyses.

Posted at April 2, 2006 03:08