Monday, May 02, 2005

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubher

After reading a review of this book in Esquire and seeing one of the authors on The Daily Show I decided to see what everyone is talking about.

I am someone who enjoys a spirited debate (hence the blog) and have often been known to try and start conversations with lines like, "so I've just read something really interesting..." Unfortunately, over the weekend I made the mistake of combining this tactic with the position Levitt is most famous for--that the decline in violent crime that started in the early nineties has more to do with the legalisation of abortion in the early seventies than anything else.

Usually, I'm careful to introduce these lines only around friends and family that are used to my debating desires but this weekend I made the triple faux pas of introducing a troublesome topic (abortion) around strangers (a friend of my cousin) and under adverse debating conditions (a bottle and a half of red for me, about eight tall cans of Bud for him). Admittedly, I wasn't totally surprised that Levitt's theory met with anger just the ferocity of this anger and some of the arguments made to refute the claim.

Most popular argument: There was no drop in the murder rate. This point wasn't being championed only by "Bud" either. It seems that the intelligent people (Bud included) with whom I was arguing believe that politicians always lie (not too shocking, Adscam was cited as proof) and statisticians and police forces were widely complacent and willing to help these politicians by producing false statistics (!). I tried to point out that this means that they are contending that the statistics were accurate until a point when politicians and their statistician buddies suddenly became more dishonest. Arguments that thinkers like Levitt would have been careful to make sure their data was accurate; that vested interests exist both for exaggerating murder rate and for understating it; and that of all statistics the murder would be very difficult to manipulate because of how public each murder is all fell on deaf ears. I then pointed out that challenging the "facts" of the argument were unfair especially when such a challenge was based on little more than emotional prejudice about politicians and statistics in general. Needless to say, that is where the intelligent debate ended and the name-calling began.

From this exchange I can conclude that: there is a good reason not to even mention "abortion" around people who you aren't absolutely certain agree with everything you have to say on the matter; and a lot of people are very cynical about government, logic, and academic thinking unless it jives with their personal views based on emotional responses. I highly recommend that everyone take a look at this book though. No background in statistics or economics is at all required to appreciate the logical detective work that the authors have obviously put into it.

3 Comments:

Blogger Rambling Rose Cottage said...

Thanks for the book review. It does sound interesting.

1:31 PM  
Blogger sojourning crow said...

not sure i am going to read the book but i will see the movie.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Rhetoric said...

Thanks for the comments.

I don't know whether it was the fact that I wrote about a popular American book or that I was somehow chosen to be included in the random cycling of blogs that blogspot throws at you if you hit the "next blog" button when browsing but my traffic went through the roof today. If I'd known I would have made this post better by talking more about the profound conclusions the author draws than focussing on how repeating one of said conclusions almost got me punched in the face.

I won't ruin the surprise for anyone who wants to read the book but some of Levitt's most interesting conclusions are on topics such topics as the effectiveness of campaign spending, the proclivity of teachers to cheat in their students' favour on stardardised testing, and what parental factors are correlating with children who achieve well in school.

5:31 PM  

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