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."