Review: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

6 comments

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner book cover
Freakonomics (2005) promises a fresh and enlightening take on the world that surrounds us courtesy of radical perceptions from the authors, Levitt and Dubner, who cast themselves as “rogue economists”. The book covers a range of topics, relevant mainly to the American middle classes, and jumps jarringly from one to another with no apparent attempt to provide a cohesive structure.

Although the style is often irritating, one could forgive this is if the observations made within the jumble of chapters were as ground-breaking as promised. Sadly, one is dragged through a series of banal musings, some of which are head-smackingly obvious, others of which are substantiated only by seemingly spurious evidence.

It would appear the popularity of Freakonomics is a result of clever marketing, both by the publishers and the authors themselves (within the book the reader is constantly told how complicated and incomprehensible the world is, before being ‘enlightened’ by the authors).

Devoid of revolutionary thinking, Freakonomics offers nothing to the discerning reader except an exploration into the triumph of style over substance in modern publishing.

Although Freakonomics is fairly easy to read the content is either mundane or presented using stupendously unscientific logic. A complete waste of my time and money, I was left very irritated by this book.


Useful Links
Reviews of Freakonomics on Amazon (UK) 
Film adaptation of Freakonomics on Amazon (UK)

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6 comments:

Esha said...

interesting review, Matthew. i agree with your point about the disjointedness of the book; it's also written quite prosaically. i'm not sure i agree with regards to its substance. the content's presented in an accessible way so as to avoid the dry economic technicalities of the research on which it is based. truth is that the academic papers on which the book is based are thoroughly interesting, and, particularly when it comes to the economics of law and crime, are somewhat seminal.

for example, levitt wrote and co-wrote a series of ground-breaking empirical papers in the early 2000s that quite unequivocally refuted that the death penalty had a deterrent effect on crime. instead, he found that Rowe versus Wade, increased police per capita, prison crowding and proscribing the crack trade in NY explained a decrease in crime, something no other researcher had empirically (and unequivocally) been able to prove.

but, who wants to read about future discount rates of those in the crack business, and the statistical significance tests conducted to prove whether Rowe vs Wade had a deterrent effect on crime?

by simplifying the content, academics do run the risk of losing the nuance of their arguments. but, for me, the book serves as a preliminary enquiry for those wanting to learn more about just how evasively pervasive incentives are.

bigWOWO said...

Matthew,

Thank you!

I didn't review this book on my site, but I spoke about it with several friends, and we all agreed--many of the conclusions just didn't make sense. I don't think I have ever read a book that promised so much and delivered so little. I was surprised that no other reviewers were similarly dissatisfied with this book.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Esha – thanks for a really full and interesting comment. Please forgive me if any of the points I make below are inaccurate – it's been a while since I read the book, and I don't have a copy to hand to check on the details.

I agree that the economics can be dry and so presenting it in a fun, popular form is a great way to bring new people to the discipline, or at the very least interest them in the economics of the world around them. However, I felt that Freakonomics as a stand-alone piece didn't work – there were too many instances where, based on the evidence presented, completely unscientific assertions were made. I have a similar problem with Richard Dawkins - although I respect him as an academic and intellectual - many of his popular books are written in a way that simply don't accurately represent the deeper arguments and theories that he is presenting.

In this case, I found the first chapter, which covers the Rowe versus Wade theory, to be the most interesting and worthy of recommendation. Here I might be wrong, but I seem to remember the authors quite seriously down-playing the other effects you mention, and suggesting that the abortion laws were the primary reason, almost to the point of exclusivity, for the drop in the crime rate. I should also admit here, that I haven't read the empirical papers you mentioned, but I'd be interested to know why they were seminal. As far as I know, there was research far pre-dating them that disputed the effectiveness of the death-penalty as a deterrent, so I suppose the uniqueness is in the empirical nature of the research?

However, as I say, I found the opening chapter to be the high point of the book, beyond that I found the observations to be fairly banal and the logic presented erroneous at times. I hope that those who read and enjoyed Freakonomics went on to read the source material, or other, more substantial, economic texts – in that way it would have succeeded.

Thanks again for a great and thoughtful comment Esha – I'm genuinely interested to find out more, so do stop back and follow-up any time :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

bigWOWO - I'm in the same camp as you - baffled by the amount of praise Freakonomics has received. I originally picked it up on the glowing recommendation of a couple of friends, and really couldn't have been more disappointed.

For me, a book like Freakonomics has to follow scientific convention, even if presenting the facts in a fun, easy-to-follow manner. One can't simply make huge leaps of deduction simply because explaining the bridging logic would be less than entertaining.

Cheers for the comment!

Megan said...

Hi Matthew! Thanks for visiting my blog earlier, I'm glad it helped entertain an otherwise dreary afternoon!

I actually read this book about five years ago and from memory I really enjoyed it. Some chapters were boring but most I found really interesting and it did kind of challenge my way of thinking a little. I was keen to get the next book that was published last year (I think) but so far I haven't.

I really enjoyed reading your review and analysis of the book. Hope you come back to visit my site again in future!

Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for dropping by Megan, and thanks for brightening my afternoon with those jaw-dropping book shops.

There is a little bit of me that's tempted to read Super Freakonomics or whatever it's called, just so that I can guff and tut and generally be a grumpy librarian all over again - that's not weird right?

Ah well, pleased you enjoyed it - stop back anytime. :)