Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything or Dime Store Schlock? A Review

In another thread I expressed skepticism about the best selling book “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.” In order not to derail that thread too much, I decide to make a full review here.

The book’s premise is that the data explain everything, we just need to know how to understand what the data are telling us and what questions to ask to get them to release their secrets. Steven Levitt, the Rogue Economist, along with his sidekick journalist Stephen Dubner, help us use data to explore the hidden side of things and explain why the conventional wisdom is so often wrong. Sounds interesting!

But in fact, all the “hidden sides” can be lumped into 1) things that are already painfully obvious, 2) blatant misuse/misunderstanding of statistics, and 3) non-actionable random anecdotes. The latter is most of the book. The whole book could easily be a third the length.

I won’t go through the whole book in detail, but here are some tidbits.

  • Chapter 1. What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?

In the early 2000s, many states began using standardized testing to punish underperforming schools/teachers and reward overperforming schools/teachers. This incentivized some teachers to cheat in order to preserve their jobs.

Sumo wrestlers are like a big fraternity. Because of the way sumo tournaments are organized, some sumo wrestlers are incentivized to take a fall because their buddies will pay them back later.

That’s it. That’s what school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common.

As supporting evidence, the authors provide a completely unrelated story about a guy who has an on-your-honor bagel delivery business.

  • Chapter 2. How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like A Group of Real-Estate Agents?

The authors start off with an unsupported claim that the Ku Klux Klan became less popular over time because the secret nature of the Klan gradually became exposed. Hence, because it was no longer secret, it lost its appeal. That doesn’t sound like the whole story, but okay.

I have literally no idea what this has to do with real estate agents.

  • Chapter 3, Why Do Most Drug Dealers Live with their Mothers?

Answer: They don’t make much money.

The chapter was fairly interesting, but nothing actionable. I recommend watching The Wire instead.

I’ll skip chapter 4, which is the famous chapter about crime and abortion. It has thoroughly debunked elsewhere, so I’ll move onto Chapter 5, which was difficult to read.

  • Chapter 5. What Makes A Perfect Parent?

We all know that humans tend to misevaluate risk, but this chapter tries to pick out a cute supporting anecdote that just becomes painful to read.

Little Molly has two friends, Amy, whose parents have gun and Imani* whose parents have a pool. Molly’s parents forbid her to play with Amy because of the gun and instead she plays at Imani’s which, which is perceived to be safer. From the book:

But according to the data, their choice isn’t smart at all. In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 1,000 residential pools in the US. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten down each year). Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns…The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million plus) isn’t even close: Molly is far more likely to die in a swimming accident at Imani’s house than in gunplay at Amy’s.

Oh boy. Obviously, you can’t compare the number of households with a pool and the total number of guns. It has to be household to household, because most households with guns have more than one (about eight, actually, which changes the stats a bit). And equally obviously, the pool is a fun, play activity. You don’t send Molly to go play with guns at Amy’s. It even says “gunplay at Amy’s.” This comparison makes no sense. You can’t make a statistical comparison this way.

Also, a large number of drowning deaths are of unsupervised (unlocked gate, etc.) very young children, who don’t know how to swim. If your kid is supervised and knows how to swim it’s fine.

Levitt is a Harvard and MIT-trained economist. I can’t believe he’d make these type of basic statistical errors unless he intended to mislead the audience.

  • Chapter 6. Perfect Parenting, Part II; or: Would a Roshanda By Any Other Name Smell As Sweet?

You’ve probably heard about studies where researchers send out identical resumes’ only one with a black-sounding name and one with a white-sounding name. The resume’ with the white sounding gets far more job offers than the resume’ with black sounding name. This is strong evidence of institutional racism.

The Freaks disagree! They posit that when a prospective employer sees a black sounding name that simply implies a disadvantaged background and such workers are undependable. And indeed people with black sounding names are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and therefore not as likely to do well in life.

Note though, the resumes’ are the same! There is no need to speculate about background. The prospective employer is looking at the same exact backgrounds on both resumes’ and rejecting the black one. That’s what racism is! The Freaks can hand wave all they want, it is still racism.

  • Epilogue: Two Paths to Harvard

A big reveal that despite his privileged upbringing, Ted Kaczynski went to Harvard and went nuts. An underprivileged kid who also went to Harvard, did well, and did not go nuts. Moral of the story: Don’t go nuts.

In summary, in both the preface and epilogue the Freaks drop hints they are just sort of winging it and it really shows. Large portions of the book are filler. Lots of disjointed anecdotes, some of which are interesting and some are dry as dust. Most of the new insights they claim to be bringing aren’t actually new, instead they are obvious. Most of the others don’t seem to be supported very well. If you are looking for the hidden side of everything, this is not a good place to start.

*Later in the book, the authors’ list Imani as the “blackest” girl’s name. This had to be intentional, but I’m not sure what they were getting at.