Arnold Kling  

Freak Storm

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James Q. Wilson and I offer similar criticisms of the economics book that became a best-seller. Wilson writes,


My advice is this: if you find something that intrigues you in Freakonomics, do not rely on the book to give you a full explanation of it. Instead, look up in a college library or on the Internet the articles Levitt has written, and study them. I wish he had assembled these articles and published them as a book. He would have made much less money, but his ideas would have been much clearer and, even in their scholarly form, easier to deal with.

I write,

If readers come away from this book thinking that they have discovered how economics ought to be done, I would indeed consider it a "sad development." The book is most notable for its willingness to pass off speculative and tentative findings as though they were well-vetted, settled facts.

...For someone steeped in the social sciences, Freakonomics can be a fun and useful read. But if you read just one economics book this year, make it something else.


I challenge the significance of Levitt's finding that real estate agents in Chicago sell their homes for higher prices than the homes of their clients. He argues that it shows that agents talk their clients into selling at low prices. I offer an alternative hypothesis.

A typical client may or may not be "under the gun" to sell because of a relocation, change in family status, or what have you. Real estate agents on average are more likely to be moving for "trade-up" reasons. When you are trading up, your focus is on getting the highest price. When you are "under the gun," your focus is on selling as quickly as possible. Perhaps that is what accounts for Levitt's results.

Concerning the purported link between abortion and crime reduction, Wilson says,

You would never know it from this book, but not only have these claims been criticized but several scholars have offered rival theories.

I would echo that complaint for many of the findings reported in Freakonomics.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
David Thomson writes:

I found Arnold Kling’s criticism of Freakonomics to be most compelling. It’s time that more people learn about this brilliant gentleman. He has taught me much over the last five years.

Joe Blow writes:

It's fine if you want more scholarly reading material, Mr. Kling, but your criticism comes across as petty resentment at the popularity of the book.

Neema writes:
For someone steeped in the social sciences, Freakonomics can be a fun and useful read. But if you read just one economics book this year, make it something else.

So what should someone interested in econ and more than capable in math, but not an econ grad student (I'm a biophysics Ph.D. student), read?

dsquared writes:

Am I alone in finding the "Chicago real estate agent" result completely underwhelming and meaningless? Agents get 3% better prices when selling their own houses? Whoopty do! If I went to eat at Alain Ducasse and got a meal 97% as good as the one they give Alain Ducasse when he goes there, I'd guess I was getting a pretty good deal. If I hired Steve Levitt to do some consultancy for my business and he put 97% as much effort into it as he did when it was his own money on the line, I'd be overjoyed.

Roger McKinney writes:

I think a lot of economists miss the most important point about the success of Freakonomics: You must write for the audience you intend to reach. A journalist ghosted the book, which means someone who is used to capturing the attention of the general reading public vetted the content so as to make it interesting to the target audience. If the authors had followed much of the advice given by economists on the subject, no one but other economists would have read it. And this highlights the main problem with economics today: economists talk to each other while the general public carries on in ignorance about important issues.

I spent 15 years in public relations interpreting the jargon of engineers and financial experts for the general reader. The engineers and bean counters were always upset with me because I didn't include all of their minutae, footnotes and caveats. However, I knew from experience what readers would endure and how to write in a way that attracts readers. What's the use in publishing a well reasoned book if no one reads it? Wouldn't it be better to publish a book that gets the main points of economics across in an entertaining way so that the masses read it than to have a heavily footnoted, exquisitely reasoned book that only other economists will read? Of course, a place exists for both. But few books on economics reach the general public, who need them the most. My only problem with Freakonomics is that the content is so trivial!

Arnold Kling writes:
So what should someone interested in econ and more than capable in math, but not an econ grad student (I'm a biophysics Ph.D. student), read?
See the list here
Simpson writes:

Aaarrrgggghhhh...I don't want to see another list containing De Soto's book. That book is really close to useless. Anyone involved in development economics and actually did empirical work knows how the importance of that book is blown out of proportion by libertarians and conservatives. The only reason that book is loved by these folks is that its claims jibes well with their established beliefs, not because of any empirical validation. The book is junk.

John Whitehead writes:

Arnold,

I read your full review of Freakonomics and am a bit baffled. First, Heckman's quote: abortion and academic achievement aren't important topics?

Next, why do you want the public to read dreary academic papers and economics books (I'm assuming that you endorse Wilson's suggestion)? Many, many, many people who have misunderstood economics (e.g., oh, you're an economist? so what is the stock market going to do?) have had their eyes opened about the breadth of the field.

And, in all the pieces I've read about Levitt, I never have heard him suggest that this is how economics should be done. On the contrary, he seems to appreciate standard economics topics and analysis. If there is a quote that I've missed, please post it.

I had some reservations myself about the analysis in Freakonomics(see my a-bit-less-serious review: john-whitehead.blogs.com and click on the books category) but I tried to read it for what the book is, and not what it isn't. It IS the first economics book my wife (a sociologist) has read all the way through. She disagreed with much of it but found it interesing and important enough to fuss at me (again) for being an economist. It isn't a serious piece of academic work (although the background research is) and economists shouldn't be so uptight about about the analytical gaps and Dubner stuff that has been successful in selling so many books.

P.S. Note that Levitt's results have caused quite a bit of discussion and alternative theories among social scientists, including yourself. Um, isn't that typical of some of the best academic research (i.e., there aren't many silver bullet studies that cause people to nod their heads and scream yes!). Oftentimes this type of discussion takes us further down the road to the point of half-way understanding human behavior.

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