Archive for Sunday, June 19, 2005

Review: Book asks readers to question assumptions

June 19, 2005


Perhaps at no other time have state, national and international political situations more clearly illustrated the danger inherent in the all-too-human tendency to reach the conclusions one wants before investigating a problem.

This is evident in the recent, farcical school board hearings on evolution's place in Kansas public school science standards, in the Legislature's failure to adequately fund public schools after dismissing a study it commissioned to find out how much money was needed, and, most tragically, in the apparent likelihood that the Bush administration pressured intelligence findings on Iraq's WMDs to conform to the White House's beliefs.

It's this self-delusional habit that Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner seek to break readers of in "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything." The cover of the book features a green apple with a slice cut out to reveal an orange's flesh inside, evoking both a common phrase ("comparing apples to oranges") as well as a repeated theme in the book: that conventional wisdom and so-called experts are often wrong.

Economist Levitt and New York Times writer Dubner demonstrate this through several anecdotes and statistical studies in this compelling book. The points raised by the authors challenge many commonly held truths and personal views.

The book has no unifying theme. The common thread in "Freakonomics," as the authors write, is a practical, disinterested look at "how people behave in the real world."

"If morality represents an ideal world," Levitt and Dubner write, "then economics represents the actual world."

The most infamous of the book's points - because it offends both liberals and conservatives who think abortion is wrong - may be Levitt's correlating of the downswing in national crime rates in the mid- to late-1990s with the much-increased use of abortion by women with little education and income in the years after Roe v. Wade. Levitt's argument - which he supports, as he does throughout the book's other chapters, with statistics, studies and argument - is that about 16 to 25 years after Roe. v. Wade made abortion legal across the country, the children who weren't born included many whose socioeconomic backgrounds would have correlated strongly with a likelihood toward a life of crime.

Nowhere do the authors propose policy solutions for the anecdotes and studies they discuss (for the abortion-crime correlation, the closest Levitt and Dubner come is to suggest that improving the environments of youths living in poverty might be the best solution to the high incidence of criminal behavior by the poorest in society).

The authors also compare information-hoarding by the Ku Klux Klan and real estate agents and motives for the cheating of public school teachers to raise their students' standardized test scores and the cheating of sumo wrestlers, among other things.

Because this book does not have a unifying theme or argument, some might dismiss it, as a friend of mine did when I described it to her, as mere fodder for small talk or provocation to heated arguments.

While "Freakonomics" is no doubt good for either, this reader hopes it accomplishes what Dubner and Levitt set as a goal in the epilogue: to inspire readers to ask a lot of questions in their daily lives.


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