Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of EverythingFreakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Things I learned reading this book:
– a real estate agent works harder selling their own house than they do yours
– there’s a good chance those sumo wrestlers are cheating
– dealing drugs is not the path to wealth
– I have a tough time with the word “economist” (in my head it always comes out as economonist, like the financial version of the necronomicon? I dunno. Eucalyptus also baffles me.)
– guns and swimming pools both benefit from being appropriately fenced off
– things parents think will help their children be “successful” (when success means passing tests in school) don’t actually make a difference
– a book about economics can offend everyone

I started this book ready to be dazzled by Levitt’s intelligence and certain I was going to wind up agreeing with every little nugget of insight that fell from his lips. That isn’t quite what happened. Levitt and Dubner make a formidable team, and do a phenomenal job of distilling what’s normally viewed as a complicated science made of dull minutiae into something easy to understand, but still really interesting. You need absolutely zero math skills to understand this book. Or science skills. Levitt and Dubner boil it all down for you. Yet I still found myself questioning some of their conclusions. Take the “guns vs swimming pools” one; the authors determine that, based on the number of drowning deaths of children in the states compared to the number of children killed by guns, swimming pools are more dangerous (150). (They only look at residential swimming pools, and apparently don’t include deaths at natural bodies of water). While I can see their logic, I can’t help wondering about something: we throw pool parties. We actively encourage large groups of children to play in swimming pools on a regular basis. Guns aren’t the same. When was the last time you received an invitation to a child’s party that said bring ammo? Maybe I’m misunderstanding the statistics, but shouldn’t the frequency of contact with something also factor in to its danger level? Similar to the per-hour death rate of driving and flying discussed on page 151? Perhaps that level of detail excluded the scope of the book. Strangely enough, the section on deaths by guns and deaths by pools didn’t make me worry less about either of my children interacting with weapons. I am still fine with them going swimming, though. And it’s not like Levitt is advocating letting kids play with guns. It’s more an attention-getting example of how poor our skills at risk assessment are. Really the only thing he pushes for in that section is for people to keep their swimming pools appropriately fenced off.

This could be a great selection for a book club. Plenty of stuff discuss and all sorts of different opinions on politics, parenting, schooling, the drug problem and racial discrimination. My edition had a bonus segment in the back that included earlier columns Levitt wrote (some of which were just more detailed versions of topics discussed in the book proper), and an author Q&A. Even that part was kind of fun, and helped take the sting off of a few of the earlier, potentially offensive parts. I’d say there’s a high probability I’ll read SuperFreakonomics sometime in the near future, just out of curiosity. I’m not convinced I’ll like it.

Why couldn’t they have named this Freaknomics? That’s how I want to pronounce it. That extra o gives me so much trouble.

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