Subjective Science: A Rogue Book Reviewer Explores Freakonomics

Ever wondered why drug dealers still live with their mothers? Or what teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Neither have I, which is one of the points of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Steven D. Levitt, Harvard economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, New York Times writer, employ a “new way of looking” at the “riddles of everyday life,” exploring seeming unrelated correlations. On this point, the book is successful—since reading it, I pay closer attention to statistical reports on the news and ask different questions about how the conclusions were reached.

But I’m somewhat unsatisfied with the methods the authors employ. “Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work,” they declare in the introduction, “whereas economics represents how it actually does work” (13). So economics is a science, and appropriate data analysis answers our questions about reality. That’s how we discover that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the majority of “foot soldiers” in the illegal drug industry make less than minimum wage and therefore cannot afford to move out of their mother’s homes. Statistical analysis can help us nab sumo wrestlers who fix matches in Japan and Chicago schoolteachers who help their students cheat on standardized tests.

The book is written for lay people (like me), so there isn’t an abundance of source citations in the endnotes. This makes it easier to read, but harder to demonstrate the facts. And some of the cited sources are questionable. The statistics about drug dealers, for example, are based on a set of books kept by one mid-level dealer—so not only does it represent a narrow set of data (and a unique set, as the authors point out, since drug dealers don’t typically record their illegal activities!), but it’s data provided by a convicted felon, who may or may not have had reason to falsify his data. Though the study is certainly fascinating and should be taken into consideration by social reformers, I would hesitate to suggest that it “represents how [the illegal drug trade] actually does work,” to paraphrase the authors’ thesis.

One of the methods the authors employ is regression analysis, a technique that holds all other identified factors constant so that two selected factors can be explored in correlation. “A regression analysis can demonstrate correlation, but it doesn’t prove cause.” (163) So far, so good. Sounds scientific to me. But just two paragraphs later, the authors explain that “regression analysis is more art than science” (163). I’m confused: is economics subjective or objective? Perhaps it is legitimately both, as one might argue for other sciences, but if that’s the case, shouldn’t we be more careful about presenting our conclusions as hard facts as opposed to the subjective judgments of others?

In the “What makes a perfect parent?” chapter, Levitt and Dubner explain that, statistically-speaking, child safety seats are far overrated—compared to pool safety, for example. I can accept that as fact. But they go on to say that, therefore, driving to the police station to have a car seat installed correctly is “a gesture of love, surely, but also a gesture of what might be called obsessive parenting. (Obsessive parents know who they are and are generally proud of the fact; non-obsessive parents also know who the obsessives are and tend to snicker at them)” (153). That sounds to me like a value judgment and not a scientific theory.

So, though the idea of the book is worth exploring—and successfully demonstrates that economics need not be boring—it seems that the authors ultimately commit the same epistemological fallacy that they claim to expose.

Has anyone else had this reaction, or am I completely off the chart here? I especially welcome anyone with an economics background to explain what I’m missing (just keep it in lay terms, please).

16. February 2006 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, which was a surprise to me since the only economics class I took in undergrad was Macro Economics and I was so bored I dropped it to an audit.

    Overall I think the book delivered on the stated intent – to get me to think differently, even skeptically, about the reports I read and hear in the media on numbers. However, I think the authors fell into some of the same traps they warn the reader about.

    Frankly, I’m happy to use experts in fields other than my own. Just as I don’t want to spend time baking my own bread, sewing my own clothes, or fixing my car, I was happy to have a realtor do the time-consuming research needed when I bought my home. And now that my husband is a realtor, I see first hand how much work it is – and how off base some of Mr. Levitt’s comments were. He spoke outside of his expertise and reached false conclusions. Because I rely on experts in other fields, I have time to entertain, read, participate in Church life, reach out to neighbors, spend time with friends and family, etc. And because people rely on my expertise, I have a job that let’s me do the things I love and in turn frees others up to do what they know and love.

    As a Christian reading this book it was hard not to see the evidence of our total depravity. Whether it was stealing bagels at the office, dealing drugs in the ‘hood, or Sumo wrestling, people invariably lie, cheat, and steal. The section on abortion was particularly sobering. No matter where you fall on the issue, the staggering number of abortions in the United States alone is heartbreaking.

    So, glad I read it. Glad our newly formed book club chose it and talked about it. Look forward to reading other responses.