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Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt


A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt

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Title Details

Unabridged Edition
Running Time
6 Hrs. 30 Min.
User Rating
  4.6  Stars Based on 8 ratings


Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much-heralded scholar who studies the riddles of everyday life, from cheating and crime to sports and child rearing, and whose conclusions regularly turn the conventional wisdom on its head. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: Freakonomics.

Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives; how people get what they want or need especially when other people want or need the same thing. In Freakonomics, they set out to explore the hidden side of...well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The secrets of the Ku Klux Klan.

What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Steven Levitt, through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, shows how to see through all the clutter.

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Reviews & Ratings
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Reviewer LOLJPB
 February 17, 2006
General Content: It's fitting that the first blurb over on Audible.com for Freakonomics was by no less than Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink. Like those two titles, Freakonomics is an interesting journey through some amazing stories and statistics. It doesn't get into the meat of the issues and while Levitt and Dubner seem to aspire to not much more than impressing us with some cool, real world applications of economics, the result is nonetheless engaging and highly listenable.

If you're the type of person with a strong logical inclination, you'll almost certainly fall in love with this book. The reasons why realtors almost always sell their own homes for more and why drug dealers often live with their parents are startling and not soon to be forgotten. Freakonomics will definitely change the way you look at the world. Even though the book lacks a cohesive theme and is a bit self-indulgent at times (Levitt is smart, we get it!) you'll still find yourself challenged and enlightened by what Levitt and Dubner have to offer.

Audio-Specific Content: I listened to the unabridged (6 hours, 30 minutes) version available through Audible.com. It was read by one of the authors (Stephen Dubner) who did a satisfactory job. It certainly made for interesting listening!

Reviewer Donald
 February 17, 2006
Ask most people if they want to understand statistics . . . and they run in the opposite direction. That's too bad because these days anyone who can run a personal computer can perform sophisticated statistical analysis using relatively affordable software like SPSS. Freakonomics may open a few minds by showing that much of what the conventional wisdom is . . . is wrong.

Economics has been traditionally focused on writing equations to explain "how things should work" assuming that nothing else changes. That's the rub. Everything else does change . . . and the theories don't work in practice. You've all heard the resulting economist jokes.

Steven Levitt does something that academics don't like anyone to do: He looks for interesting, practical questions and devises simple, straightforward solutions.

His method is usually pretty simple. He looks for patterns by using regression programs and then thinks about what the regressions might mean. That often leads to a trip to some other data, and eventually the correct cause-and-effect pattern emerges. It's like the invention methods of champion tinkerer Thomas A. Edison. Keep trying until something practical works. Fortunately, with today's computers you don't have to wait very long. The biggest challenges are in finding the right data sets, as this book shows through its example of why drug dealers usually live with their mothers.

The book indicts the media and many so-called experts who simply haven't done their homework. As a result, you can spend a lot of time being misinformed by reading the latest Congressional testimony, the latest think-tank study or by watching a talking head debate on television. The lesson: Be skeptical unless you see the data and the analyses, as they are displayed in this book's few examples.

In the book, you will find out how statistics can identify some of those who cheat (whether they are teachers or sumo wrestlers) and how economic incentives slant behavior (how real estate brokers sell their own property versus selling yours). You will encounter a novel argument that Roe v. Wade has reduced the violent crime rate. You'll find an even more interesting argument about how to equate the value of reduced crime to the cost of abortions.

More favorably, there are case studies on how accurate information trumps bad or misleading information to the benefit of us all.

The book ends up on a largely unsatisfying statistical look at nature versus nurture . . . and pretty much dismisses nurture when it comes to child-raising.

So it's a grab bag of topics, mixed with lots of hero worship (by co-author Stephen J. Dubner for co-author Steven D. Levitt).

Why is this book selling so well? I couldn't figure it out. It doesn't have the elegance and relevance of The Tipping Point. It's about statistics, and hardly anyone wants to read about that.

So I asked my wife and younger daughter. They both knew the book was a best seller (obviously it has good media play). They both loved the cover . . . especially the illustration of an apple that when you cut into it reveals an orange. They also liked the title (both finding economics pretty freaky). I nominate whoever came up with that cover concept and title for the best "you can't tell a book by its cover" award for 2005.

So what does Freakonomics have to do with apples and oranges? As best I can tell, Freakonomics has very little to do with those fruits in a literal sense. The metaphor seems to be intended to be applied in two ways: First, you have to compare apples and oranges to the right reference to understand what you are examining; and second, sometimes the cause of something comes from an unexpected source when we peel back the skin of surface reality. If you want more, I discuss some applications of the book in my blog posting for today.

If you already like and know statistics, you can read Professor Levitt's articles instead of this book. If you like "gee whiz" facts about things you don't know much about, this book is for you.

Donald Mitchell

More Details

  • Published: 2005
  • LearnOutLoud.com Product ID: T005330
Available On
Audio CD
5 Discs