Book Review: Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt, and Stephen Dubner

Before I begin with the review, I would like to sincerely thank Maria Tatham, author of the book ‘The Queen and the Handyman’, for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award. I am still a novice at blogging and trying my best to manage blogging and studies. I wish to be good at blogging and continue my upward scale of learning.  You may want to visit her website and check for yourself how wonderful story teller she is. Thank you again, Maria.

And now, here’s the review.

Not an ardent admirer of the study of economics, I do not remember what made me select Freakonomics as my next read. I guess it was the book cover with a pretty cool picture (hardly to be seen on a book related to economics), and a bohemian title. But, now that I have finished reading this book, here are my views on the book.

“Economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of questions,” writes Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics. You might ask: What questions are these? Well, how about answering why drug dealers live with their mothers? Or what effect can legalized abortion have on the crime rate in the country? Or, what is common between a Ku Klux Klan member and a real estate agent? Or, can fear of AIDS change sexual preference? Ridiculous questions, aren’t they? At least I thought them to be, but not are their answers, which are explored in the book.

Steven Levitt, a young economist at the University of Chicago (besides being a Harvard and MIT alum), was approached by Stephen Dubner, a journalist for the Wallstreet Journal, for an interview. But on consecutive meetings Dubner acknowledged the in depth knowledge and insights Levitt had about the world around. Later, they both teamed up to write a book answering few interesting questions with a new perspective. Freakonomics is the ultimate concoction of the brilliance of Levitt’s questioning and reasoning capabilities, and Dubner’s ability to write in explanatory way.

Books, esp. non-fiction, are often written with a common unifying theme. Freakonomics, however, as reiterated by the authors time and again in the book, is written without any ‘unifying’ theme. The aim behind writing Freakonomics cannot be put in a few words, or sentences, but the subtitle of the book, “the hidden side of everything”, can help you surmise the concept behind the book. The authors have tried to stick (in which they are fairly successful) to the base-zero principle of economics: Syllogisms- just because two things are correlated does not mean that one causes the other.

Majority of the events, as explained in the book, point to the very primordial characteristic of humans; we respond to incentives, most powerful being the incentive of fear. The book studies the effect of a person’s name on getting a job callback, the social incentives at play when we vote, and the financial incentives driving teachers and sumo wrestlers to cheat. Besides these findings, the book contains many dazzling revelations, all backed by extensive research and numbers.

Levitt has a knack for explaining things in simple manner, well enough for even a layman to understand (knowledge of percentages is recommended). Devoid of graphs and charts (though, numbers do slip in :-D), Freakonomics proves to be an easy read.

I would not say that this book will be liked by all but for one who is interested (and mentally prepared) to read something about the effect of numerous parameters and variables on the outcome of a particular event will surely enjoy it. Overall, I liked the book as it is insightful and beautifully written; however, I found my interest dwindling towards the end when the concept of the effect of name on individual’s success, and the role parents play in child’s development began. At some point you might even find few topics a bit redundant and unnecessary. But, due to the addition of bonus material from the columns of the New York Times and the Freakonomics blog, I found myself again hooked to the book.

As it is a case with any book related to economics, you won’t find ‘concrete’ and fully satisfying answers to many (if not a few) questions. This is because the conclusions and inferences of the data can be against the conventional wisdom and understanding. At some point you’ll find yourself exclaim ‘this is absurd!’, and ‘how the heck can this be true!’ But trust me, given the pile of voluminous data analyzed in economic study, it is very difficult to look for the most pertinent information to solve the economic conundrum, and it is best left to economists to solve it; more often than not, the findings are true. This should explain the reason the book is titled ‘Freakonomics.’

There are many learning’s in the book, the prime of all is the one encapsulated in a quotation by Adam Smith, pioneer of capitalism, in ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “How selfish so ever man may be supposed there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt, and Stephen Dubner

  1. Isn’t Maria wonderful? I’m rather a fan if her myself. 🙂

    I’ve heard so much about this book, and your review really interests me. I’ll definitely have to check it out!

    1. Indeed! Maria is a wonderful person, and I always look forward to her feedbacks. I am glad that my review interests you. Amanda, I am awestruck by the number of books you already have read this year. I can no way even complete a third of what you have read but this has inspired me to form a goal of reading at least 24 books next year. 🙂

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