Monday, May 28, 2007

Shoot the Freak

Because this is Memorial Day, I thought I would post a recommendation for some fun reading, along with a few stray comments of my own. (Because many people will spend this holiday at Coney Island, I titled this message with an obscure reference to an attraction at that famous tourist destination.)

The book Freakonomics became something of a phenomenon back in 2005. The book itself was a huge bestseller, the authors (Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner) started to write a semi-regular column in the NYT Sunday Magazine, and of course a Freakonomics Blog was obligatory. A sequel, Super-Freakonomics, is reportedly on the way.

I was among those taken in, writing a positive review of the book (along with the book Blink -- which I still believe is very good) on FindLaw. Although I noted some overstatements in Freakonomics, particularly in its claims that Levitt's insights somehow derived uniquely from "the economic method of thinking," or some such pomposity, a fair reader would reasonably have called the review a rave.

Almost immediately after writing that review, though, I started to reconsider. In part, it was the follow-up pieces in the NYT Magazine, which seemed forced and unpersuasive. (One, discussing child safety seats -- with Levitt assuring people that the data did not support the wisdom of child safety seat laws -- turned out to have been based on a review of only a small fraction of the relevant safety data. Oops! Who cares if parents went away believing something unsupported by the data?! The article was a pleasure to read, wasn't it?)

I began to suspect that there was exactly one book's worth of interesting material of this sort, and Levitt had already jumped the shark by pushing it further. Mostly, though, I realized that I had been taken in by a breezy style and Levitt's self-assured tone. Yes, data analysis is interesting and important; but Levitt didn't invent it, re-invent it, or even do much useful with it.

I recently came across a much more acerbic review of Freakonomics by the economist Ariel Rubenstein, "Freak-Freakonomics," which was published in December of last year. (The link requires a free sign-on to an interesting on-line magazine called The Economists' Voice.) Suffice it to say that I agree with Rubinstein's review more than my own. In five short pages, Rubinstein sketches the outline of his not-forthcoming book, Freak-Freakonomics. Here is a sample:

"Freakonomics lashes out at the entire world from the Olympus of economics. My response is an outline of 'my new book'—Freak- Freakonomics. In my ('brilliant . . . ') book, I will borrow from the structure and text of Freakonomics. I will show that if one also looks upon economists, including Levitt, as economic agents, one can use the insights of Freakonomics to lash out against . . . economics and economists."

Also this, from (the nonexistent) Chapter 2 ("Why Do Economists Earn More than Mathematicians?"):

"The chapter is inspired by Freakonomics’ discussion of the question of why 'the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect.' [J]ust as Levitt has never encountered a girl who dreams of being a prostitute, I have never met a child who dreams of being an economist. ... I offer a new explanation for the salary gap between mathematicians and economists: many economists are hired to justify a viewpoint. In contrast, I have never heard of mathematicians who proved a theorem to satisfy their masters."



Sherry F. Colb said...

Fascinating post (and article by Ariel Rubinstein), Neil. I cannot help noticing, however, that in the first afterword of Rubinstein's piece, he claims (albeit admittedly "without research" and with his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek) that parents and teachers account for 49% of a child's personality and abilities (as 50% come from genes alone, a percentage noted in Freakonomics). Actually, there is research on this subject. And the research, discussed in a terrific book, "The Nurture Assumption," shows that Rubinstein is mistaken. Parents and teachers have very little influence on a child's developing personality. The ubiquitous belief that they do represents the "nurture assumption" referenced in the title. It turns out that, beyond genetics, a child's peer group has the greatest impact on his or her personality. Perhaps this is yet another reason not to trust "common sense" intuitions about our world.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks, Sherry. I'm sure that Rubinstein would gladly concede the point. Even with your true facts (as opposed to Rubinstein's false facts), I still agree with his concluding comment: "These numbers do not leave much room for Freakonomics."

PG said...

Now I'm curious: what influences the peer group? After all, suppose you have a close-knit family that homeschools its children, and one of the children is particularly introverted and uninclined to socialize with people she doesn't already know. Surely that child's peer group necessarily is the family itself? Even if it's not the parents, it's the siblings, and those siblings themselves *must* have been somewhat influenced by their parents. It would explain the sociology on how oldest children tend to identify more strongly with their parents -- for the years until siblings arrive, the parents are the eldest's society. Indeed, inasmuch as children have personalities even before they go to school or otherwise spend much time socializing with other children, I'm doubtful of this claim about peer groups' influence on *personality* as opposed to *culture*. Certainly the movies I watch, music I listen to, etc. are a product of what other people in my age group like rather than what my parents do, but I think how I behave and react on a psychological level is more due to family influences.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Good question, pg. I had a similar thought, and I hope that Sherry might be willing to post on this topic soon.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Hi PG and Neil, and thanks for your questions and thoughts. Studies have shown that genetic siblings raised in different homes (due to adoption) are just as similar to each other (and different from each other) in personality as genetic siblings raised in the same home. This is true as well of identical twins. These data demonstrate persuasively that parental styles are not having an effect on the child's resulting personality. Research shows as well that the so-called birth-order effects dissolve when people's personalities are studied outside the family (i.e., when they're grown up and not "home for the holidays"). Though a child who is raised alone would seemingly have no alternatives but to shape her personality in accordance with those of her parents, she is usually introduced to other children her age at some point and thus has the opportunity to copy them. Much of what we attribute to parental influence (because kids do seem to resemble their parents stylistically) turns out to be genetics. Incidentally, adoptive siblings are also no more likely to resemble each other personality-wise than one of them is to resemble a random genetically unrelated stranger. This does not mean, of course, that parents or siblings "don't matter" (unless, of course, one can only matter by altering another's personality, in which case parents matter, I suppose, in selecting the peer groups in which to place their children). For more on this fascinating subject, I highly recommend Judith Harris's two books. The first is The Nurture Assumption, which I have discussed. The second is No Two Alike, which deals with the strange fact that no two people are alike (hence the title), even when their genes and environment are as close to identical as one can get (e.g., conjoined twins). Happy reading!

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