Monday, November 19, 2012


I admit it. I find the Freakonomics book series to be charming, and, damn, if it isn’t entertaining as hell. The economist-meets-journalist pairing of Levitt and Dubner makes for a witty, easy read. 

However, I have encountered skepticism about the accuracy of the claims in their works.  I first read a criticism of the Freakonomics franchise on the website Arts and Letters Daily.  ALDaily aggregates the “best” in long form journalism.  (I highly recommend it as a homepage.)

Leave it to a bunch of scholars and long-form nerds to throw down a one-liner like this:

"The Freakonomics formula. Anecdote-rich, contrarian narrative + speculative claims presented as fact = publishing phenomenon..."

There seems to be a bit of truth in this statement.  The actual article critiquing Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, which appeared in the American Scientist magazine this year, is a little less tongue-in-cheek.   I revisited the piece this afternoon, and was happy to find it co-authored by Kaiser Fung and Columbia Professor Andrew Gelman. (I used Gelman quite a bit in my thesis.) Gelman and Fung, both statistics professors, acknowledge that it can be difficult to be engaging while teaching statistics, but note that Levitt and Dubner have a habit of making unfounded statements.

Gelman and Fung goes on to critique several of Levitt and Dubner's claims.  With regards to Superfreakonomics, Gelman and Fung specifically hit on three areas of the book: the opening anecdote about walking versus driving drunk, the section on predicting terrorists and the final chapter on climate change.  You can read their complete case by case critique here.

In the beginning of the article, Gelman notes:
“Levitt is celebrated for usin data and statistics to solve an array of problems not
typically associated with economics” (Gelman).

I find this quote to be particularly interesting because it makes me wonder -- why do we call it "Freakonomics"?  Is this truly a book about economics?  I do not mean to undermine Levitt's work as an economist, because he is incredibly well-credentialed.  But at its roots, isn't this more of a book on statistics than it is on economics?  What about psychology?  Many of the subjects discussed here were not touched upon in any of the other books we read for this class.  I'm certainly not trying to call Professor Blomberg's choices into question, I just find this trend quite interesting.  I was assigned Freakonomics for my Econ 50 class. 

Gelman and Fung concede that the original book Freakonomics was much more based around "Levitt's own peer-reviewed research."  I would definitely agree -- although I appreciate their linkage of street prostitutes and department store Santas.

It’s a fitting that this fall as the last book on our schedule.  At the beginning of this course, Heilbroner warned us about these “airport economics” books, which seek to please the reader, rather than to provide a thoughtful discussion of economic research.  Unfortunately, I think Levitt and Dubner's work falls into that category.  It’s a GOTCHA! kind of economics.  Sometimes their claims seem a bit outlandish and ounfounded.  If it sounds like the script for a Hollywood movie…well, it is.  Check out the trailer:


No comments:

Post a Comment