Monday, December 3, 2007

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything is a 2005 book by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner that has been described as melding pop culture with economics.[1] As of 2007, it has sold 3 million copies worldwide.

Overview

The book is a collection of economic articles written by Levitt, translated into prose meant for a wide audience. Levitt had already gained a reputation in academia for applying economic theory to diverse subjects not usually covered by "traditional" economists. Levitt is not actually a "rogue" economist, however, in that he accepts the standard microeconomic model of rational utility-maximization. The book's topics include:

* Chapter 1: Discovering cheating as applied to teachers and sumo wrestlers (See below)
* Chapter 2: Information control as applied to the Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents
* Chapter 3: The economics of drug dealing, including the surprisingly low earnings and abject working conditions of crack cocaine dealers
* Chapter 4: The controversial role legalized abortion has played in reducing crime. (Levitt explored this topic in an earlier paper entitled "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime.")
* Chapter 5: The negligible effects of good parenting on education
* Chapter 6: The socioeconomic patterns of naming children

One striking example of the authors' creative use of economic theory involves demonstrating the existence of cheating among Sumo wrestlers. In a Sumo tournament, all wrestlers compete in 15 matches and stay in the top league if they win at least 8 of them. The Sumo community is very close-knit, and all of the wrestlers at the top levels tend to know each other well. The authors looked at the final match, and considered the case of a wrestler with seven wins, seven losses, and one fight to go, fighting against an 8-6 wrestler. Statistically, the 7-7 wrestler should have a slightly below even chance, since the 8-6 wrestler is slightly better. However, the 7-7 wrestler actually wins around 80% of the time. Levitt uses this statistic and other data gleaned from Sumo wrestling matches and the effect allegations of corruption have on match results, to conclude that those who already have 8 wins collude with those who are 7-7 and let them win, since they have already secured their place in the league.

The authors attempt to demonstrate the power of data mining. Many of their results emerge from Levitt's analysis of various databases, and his creativity in asking the right questions. For example, cheating in the Chicago school system is inferred from detailed analysis of students' answers to multiple choice questions. But first Levitt asks, "What would the pattern of answers look like if the teacher cheated?" The simple answer: difficult questions at the end of a section will be more correct than easy ones at the beginning.

Reappraisals

In Chapter 2 of Freakonomics, the authors wrote of their visit to folklorist Stetson Kennedy's Florida home where the topic of Kennedy's investigations of the Ku Klux Klan were discussed. However in their January 8, 2006 column in the New York Times Magazine Dubner and Levitt wrote of questions about Stetson Kennedy's research ("Hoodwinked" pp 26-28) leading to the conclusion that Kennedy's research was at times embellished for effectiveness. The implication of the reappraisal of their source was that Kennedy's claims and conclusions should be reviewed for accuracy and verified, rather than being accepted at full face value.

In the "Revised and Expanded Edition" this embellishment was noted and corrected: "Several months after Freakonomics was first published, it was brought to our attention that this man's portrayal of his crusade, and various other Klan matters, was considerably overstated....we felt it was important to set straight the historical record." (pp. xiv, Revised Edition)

Publishing history and blog

Freakonomics peaked at number two among nonfiction on the New York Times bestseller list and was named the 2006 Book Sense Book of the Year in the Adult Nonfiction category.

The success of the book has been partly attributed to the blogosphere. In the campaign prior to the release of the book in April 2005, the publisher (William Morrow and Company) chose to target bloggers in an unusually strategical way, sending galley copies to over a hundred of them, as well as contracting two specialized word of mouth (buzz marketing) agencies.[1]

The authors started their own Freakonomics blog, which is "meant to keep the conversation going", in 2005. In May 2007, blogger Melissa Lafsky was hired as a full time editor.[3]In August 2007, the blog was incorporated into the New York Times' web site (the authors had been writing joint columns for the New York Times Magazine since 2004), and the domain freakonomics.com became a redirect there.[4]

In fall 2006, the Revised and Expanded Edition of the book was published, with the most significant corrections in the second chapter (see above).[5]

In April 2007, co-author Stephen Dubner announced that there will be a sequel to Freakonomics. It will contain further writings about street gang culture from Sudhir Venkatesh, as well as a study of the use of money by capuchin monkeys.[6] Dubner has said the title would be Superfreakonomics,[7] and that one topic will be what makes people good at what they do.

References

Further reading

External links

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