mnot’s blog

Design depends largely on constraints.” — Charles Eames

Sunday, 22 May 2005

Freakonomics

After hearing a review on NPR and reading the Economist’s, I was (as was once said) with child to read Freakonomics. After finding myself in a queue of 411 other people putting it on hold in the Peninsula Library System, I broke and bought it.

This book spells out perfectly why I’m so interested in economics; it’s not the numbers or the money, it’s the interplay of incentive and action. From the introduction;

Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work—whereas economics represents how it actually does work. Economics is above all a science of measurement. it comprises an extraordinarily powerful and flexible set of tools that can reliably assess a thicket of information to determine the effect of any one factor, or even the whole effect. That’s what “the economy” is, after all; a thicket of information about jobs and real estate and banking and investment. But the tools of economics can be just as easily applied to subjects that are more—well, more interesting.

Safe to say, Levitt wields those tools with astonishingly interesting results. I’ll avoid recounting the specifics of what he finds (see the reviews, or buy the book), but did want to mention a favorite quote in the chapter about, of all things, parenting;

The typical parenting expert, like experts in other fields, is prone to sound exceedingly sure of himself. An expert doesn’t so much argue the various sides of an issue as plant his flag firmly on one side. That’s because an expert whose argument reeks of restraint or nuance often doesn’t get much attention. An expert must be bold if he hopes to alchemize his homespun theory into convention wisdom. His best chance of doing so is to engage the public’s emotions, for emotion is the enemy of rational argument.

Shades of blogging?

Yes, it’s popular science (i.e., readable). Yes, it has an unfortunate name. Yes, the interstitial excerpts from the Times Magazine article are a little annoying. My complaint, though, is that it’s too short. Anitra’s comment after working through it in a lazy evening was “that’s a shame, I was just getting into it.”

Luckily, the authors have a blog* on their Web site for the book. Hopefully, more will follow.

Now if they could just convince Roland G. Fryer to blog…

UPDATE: Crooked Timber has published an online seminar about Steven Levitt.

* Although it says it’s RSS, the feed is actually Atom. Hm. (update: this has been fixed; they offer a variety of feeds now.)


Filed under: Economics

3 Comments

Ian Bicking said:

I actually think blogging might be better than normal punditry and "experts". While discussions are often triggered by a controversial and bold assertion, the idea quickly percolates into the bloggosphere and quickly turns into a longer and more reasoned discussion. This could happen in the news if journalists reacted to the content of experts' ideas, but they don't, they just "report". There's a couple exceptions, but very few... for instance, Talk of the Nation was really good back when Ray Suarez hosted it, because he took on that role of challenger and participant, and it's sucked since he left.

Also, there's more incentive to be reasoned in the blogging world, because blog readers actually have much more memory, because they can connect directly to the person who is doing blogging. I often subscribe to bloggers based on one good post -- so that controversial or interesting post will bring people in. But unlike in conventional news, the excitement factor doesn't *keep* me reading that individual, and I'll unsubscribe if all they do is harp on their One Issue over and over. I guess this is that disintermediation factor -- I can have a more personal reader relationship with an individual expert that is entirely impossible with normal news channels.

Someone like Jim Kunstler (http://jameshowardkunstler.typepad.com/clusterfuck_nation/) can get really tedious because he's acting in exactly the way a traditional expert should -- he has one line he gives over and over and over, with perfect conviction and reliability. But it gets old quickly when you have some continuity as a reader; if he wants to be interesting he needs to expand more thoughtfully on his ideas.

Sunday, May 22 2005 at 1:54 PM +10:00

Mark Nottingham said:

Good points! I read Kunstler and very much agree; his bombast is entertaining for a while, but after it fades, there’s little left.

I was thinking of… certain personalities :) … in the blogging world when I wrote that, and didn’t mean to imply it was especially the case with blogging. Politicians are probably most guilty of using experts in this way, but it's not unique to any one profession (sadly).

Sunday, May 22 2005 at 2:04 PM +10:00

Terris Linenbach said:

I've found that business people in general (which also happen to be ordinary people, who you might run into at, say, Starbucks) do not appreciate fuzzy logic.

For example, "I am 60% certain that 35% soccer moms will buy SUVs this hear". While more accurate than boolean logic, it sounds too much like a weather report. The majority of decision makers in America have little to no attention span. They prefer sizzle.

I guess that applies to the entire population.

Thursday, June 9 2005 at 10:33 AM +10:00

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