Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Morrow, 2005, 242 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-073132-X

As a reviewer, part of my mission is to single out worthy books that deserve your attention. There’s nothing better in this hobby than to discover an unjustly forgotten work and sing its praises in the hope to convince even just another reader to seek it out.

In the case of Freakonomics, though, it’s far too late to be celebrating anything: Published in early 2005, this book of practical sociology quickly became one of the best-selling books of the year, topping the charts even as I write this, even after finding a 24th hardcover printing copy at the local remainder bookstore. Critics ranted and raved, blogs embraced and dissected, readers bought and enjoyed: At this point, there doesn’t seem anything left to proclaim about Freakonomics, the book of choice for everyone who was looking for a brainy-but-not-too-much gift for Christmas 2005.

So much for trying to find a hidden gem. But what about celebrated gems? Knowing its massive runaway success, it’s difficult to read Freakonomics, without trying to identify what made the book such a hit. There’s the catchy title, there’s attractive green-apple-and-orange cover, there’s the short page count, there’s the enticing cover blurb by global best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

But there’s more. As the subtitle suggests, Freakonomics describes how “a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.” The premise is simple: Apply the dismal science of economics to study how people behave. While sociologists have been doing this kind of social science thinking for a long time, Steven D. Levitt has the added distinction of being a certified economist. Is it possible to suppose that Americans, fascinated by the comforting certitude of numbers, would flock to a kinda-scientist if he promised to make sense of the world?

Maybe. But that kind of description severely belittles the sheer fun and impact of Freakonomics. The book doesn’t lose any time in announcing its colors. In the introduction alone, we’re told that legalized abortion lowers the crime rate; that real-estate agents demonstrably shirk their clients; that money doesn’t buy elections. Then Levitt promises to overturn conventional wisdom through hard numbers. In short, Levitt promises a better understanding of the world. Think of is as unlocking the inner working of society’s engines. Who could resist such a call? It’s like the intellectual appeal of The Da Vinci Code… for real.

Culled from Levit’s academic work (with, presumably, prosaic glue by Dubner), Freakonomics upsets a few bandwagons, teases fascinating results out of spreadsheets and does a fine job at applying the analytical tools of economics to real-life conclusions. The result is closer to sociology than economics, but who cares when you’re having so much fun?

And if Freakonomics has one particular distinction, it’s the sheer reading pleasure with which readers will tear through it. Dubner’s style is crystal-clear and Levitt’s conclusions are fascinating: It doesn’t take much more to blaze through this book without slowing down. The only thing to stop anyone, in fact, may be the desire to slow down and think about what’s just been written.

Because there is plenty of food for thought here. Among the book’s controversial assertions is the elegant deduction that the current slide in crime rate is partially due to legalized abortion: Disadvantaged people who would have committed crime starting from the early nineties were simply never born thanks to 1973’s Roe-vs-Wade decision. While the proof of such an argument is left to people curious enough to track down the references (Freakonomics is exquisitely well annotated), it’s certainly a decent conversation item at your next cocktail party. This shock-conclusion also announces Levitt’s twin interest in both parenting and crime. Levitt has spent a lot of time thinking about both, and Freakonomics spends most of its length studying the interactions between incentives, crime and parenting, teasing out conclusions that you will either find self-obvious or provocative.

Levitt concludes, for instance that pools are far more dangerous for children than keeping a gun at home. Similarly jolting conclusions are to be found throughout the book, whether it’s the revelation that teachers cheat, that seven million American “children” disappeared on April 15, 1987 and, perhaps more amusingly, that parenting doesn’t matter as much as you’d think in raising a child.

(I might as well explain that last one rather than tease you about it: Levitt, looking at the data, figures that who parent are is more important than the explicit steps they take in order to be good parents. Simply put, well-adjusted individuals are, almost by definition, more likely to be great parents than problem personalities trying to compensate through fancy educational programs and techniques. Good parents will have books in the house, for themselves, before the baby is born: they don’t rush out and buy a library for the kid in the hope that proximity to books will somehow increase their child’s IQ. It’s cause-and-effect all the way, baby.)

Freakonomics rates highly on the idea-per-page scale, with at least one provocative fact or one inspiring conclusion every few pages. Beyond just being good conversation fodder, this is a good that does present some sensible ideas about today’s society.

There’s a flip side to the book’s razzle-dazzle, though: For one thing, it’s very short at less than 250 loosely-packed pages. Even though the book contains both a great “Notes” section and a complete index, it often feels like an advertisement for more serious research. Readers with a greater craving for details, methodology and “proofs” will have to go digging in academia to be satisfied. There are also times where the authors make sweeping assertions and fail to connect them satisfactorily to their specific proof, leading me to think that any of the book’s fantabulous theories should be taken with a grain of salt. Finally, I wasn’t taken by the quotation of Dubner’s New York Times article about Levitt here and there between chapters: Why not reprint the article as an introduction and let the rest of the book expand on it?

But those disappointments seem minor compared to the intellectual charge that Freakonomics contains. Even hyped as it is, it’s well worth a read: Like most ideas-driven work, Levitt’s theories expand your mind in strange and pleasant directions. The last few years have seen a rise in this type of “let’s rethink the world” non-fiction (what with authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman and others) and the result is a big cauldron of new ideas, counterintuitive theories and fresh approaches. Why not jump in and and see that’s brewing?

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