Sunday, March 26, 2006

Freakonomics

This week's book review is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist explores the Hidden side of Everything, by Steven J Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. I've seen this book reviewed all over the place, and knew it was the kind of book I would devour very quickly.

Steven J Levitt is an economist who likes looking at everyday problems. A few examples of the conclusions he has drawn in various papers that are discussed in this book:
  • swimming pools are much more dangerous than guns (there are 100 times more child deaths per swimming pool than per gun in the US)
  • legalised abortion is the reason that crime has substantially reduced in the US (the babies who would have grown up to commit the crimes were aborted)
  • baby's names start in the upper class, and gradually filter down to the lower classes, by which time they are a clear signal of a baby/child's lower class status.
  • real estate agents behave in a way which will maximise the selling price when selling their own house, but when selling a client's house, they will minimise the selling time.

I enjoyed the book, but it does feel quite lightweight. I imagine that the various learned papers it's based on have more evidence to back the conclusions, but with most of the conclusions, I just wanted to argue with the evidence. In particular, the abortion/crime linkage seemed full of unwarranted assumptions, and completely lacking in comparisons (places where abortions hadn't been legalised and crime hadn't fallen, with everything else including the economy and the drugs of choice remaining the same).

If I had time, I would probably go and find his original paper about that, and the baby names, and read it carefully, but as it was, it felt like a book that was too lightweight for me. And I don't especially like my books heavyweight, but maybe when it involves numbers, I'm more discerning.

It's the kind of book that will be in the library (it's quite popular), so I'd recommend borrowing it, not buying it (as I did).

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