I didn’t get around to reading Freakonomics until 2007, but loved it, and immediately read Superfreakonomics, which while also good was less remarkable. It did draw me to the blog, and latterly the podcast which I download and listen to each week. When Dubner and Leavitt (D&L) announced their third book, I was happy to pre-order. (Pretty annoying that we Brits had to wait a whole extra day to get it – in the US it was released at just after midnight on Monday 12 May, it didn’t become available in Britain until the 13th!) That having been said, it downloaded onto my Kindle this morning and I’ve read it cover to cover.
“The plural of anecdote is not data”, the authors remind us, and I suppose that the one criticism I would level at this book is that quite a lot of the characteristics of “Freak” thinkers are based on singular or occasional observations by the authors and their many collaborators/cited sources. While the earlier books focussed mainly on Professor Leavitt’s research into criminal and other rule breaking activities and referenced what were clearly large data sets, that seems to be less the case here. This is a book that is based as much on psychology as it is on economics and statistics, although there is a light sprinkling of economic concepts - sunk costs, opportunity costs, incentives to name just a few.
This book is a manual of sorts to help thinking about the way that the authors do. There is a slight feel of a self-help book, but with such laid back authors, there’s no feeling of being presented with an insurmountable challenge – the first bit of advice to help you “Think like a Freak” is to admit you don’t know, and the last is to quit if you want to – it might make you happier. Other advice includes “ask a different question”, “find the root of the problem”, “have fun”, “treat people decently”, but D&L do come at these from “a different angle” (another of their recommendations) so while listed here these may seem obvious or commonplace, it doesn’t read that way. Some other exhortations – like “Teach Your Garden to Weed Itself” are certainly more original. There are plenty of references to economics and statistics –to name but a few – but less so than in the two earlier books.
On a technical level, the book is makes excellent use of ebook technology. The links to the extensive notes (about 40 pages out of 255 of so) were the easiest to access and get back from that I can recollect in a Kindle book. (The link to a web-site was less rewarding – not something Kindles deliver very well – but would probably work better on a tablet). The book had been excellently edited too, although just one query: surely Dave Le Roth would have trashed the dressing room if there were brown M&M’s (p214)?
This is an interesting book, it’s funny in parts, and I recommend it. Whether it will actually help people think in different ways is another question, but then that is just the same problem as with most regular self-help books. I may have been slightly under-awed as it became clear, as I read through the book, that much of the material had already been used in their excellent podcast, and if you haven’t been following that it’ll probably seem much more original.
Should be required reading in all high schools around the world. If you do not naturally think like a freak, at least you can learn from this book what is wrong with the way you do think. Then you can stop assuming that your thinking (if you can call it that) process and conclusions are correct and be open to suggestions that make more sense, or at least admit that you don't know. In essence, thinking like a freak combines the scientific method, intellectual rigor, and creative problem solving. It is the natural mode of children but most people are taught to lose their curiosity and accept (or resign themselves to pretending to accept) total nonsense. Witness the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes.
This is a very quick read. While better than the flawed Superfreakonomics it is very different from the original book. Fewer examples and interesting pieces, more a companion to the first book and covering much the same ground as their podcast.
If you pick this up cheap it's worth the hour or two it'll take you to read, but if you've not read Freakonomics that is the book to go for.
The message of the first two books was that people respond to incentives. The message of the third book is that the authors are cool. Too cool.
They can see through David Cameron's dedication to the NHS (he lost a kid to grave illness); they feel qualified to discuss football (that they grew up calling soccer); by now they're old enough to have had children that they bring into the discussion and they are soooooo smug about having gotten some wannabe UK terrorists to buy health insurance.
While I don't doubt for one second that these are some very important people, they don't need to talk down to me so much.
They quote George Bernard Shaw, but then they recast one of his famous exchanges with a woman as one between "an economist" and a Vegas entertainer. They propose that governments issue bonds that behave like lottery tickets without bothering to check that the UK has been selling Premium Bonds since 1956.
They've gotten sloppy, bottom line.
I take particular issue with the penalty kick example: Statistically speaking, the authors inform us, football players who take penalty kicks would do better to shoot straight down the middle, but allegedly they don't because they don't want to look silly if the goalie does not jump to the side. They're, you know, self-motivated and they put their interest in not looking stupid before the team's interest in winning.
What if the guy taking the shot kicks the ball just a tad off the middle and actually MAKES IT EASY for the goalie? Is that not the more plausible explanation for not aiming straight? Same way he can't be guaranteed to get the corner without potentially hitting the post, he probably also can't be guaranteed to send it perfectly straight down the middle no? How about that, Messieurs Levitt and Dubner?
I completely lost patience when I read their apocryphal story about some British occupying force guy in Palestine insisting on a cold beer. REALLY? A British guy who prefers cold beer to warm beer?
The last chapter of the book is about quitting. The authors explain how sometimes it's better to give up. A chapter on quitting while you're still ahead would have been more apropos. They should have padded out Freakonomics with about half the examples in Superfreakonomics and left it there!
That said, this is not a bad book. It was an entertaining and undemanding read, just what I needed on my late night flight to Ibiza last Friday. But it's not to the same standard as Freakonomics. Which is a shame, because these guys can do (and have done) better.
I was really excited to see the authors of Freakonomics/Superfreakonomics had a new collaboration coming out. Those books definitely had an effect on how I look at things, and I had high hopes for this new effort.
It's not the same as their previous works, I would start by saying. While there are anecdotes (or rather, stories, as they'd call them), it's much more like a self-help book in the sense that they offer lessons of how to think like a Freak (an economist) about the world, problems big and small, your life.
It's still funny though. And informative. They offer tidbits from their own lives, how they got where they are today, more experimental research they've been involved in. I think one of my favourite stories was about the hot-dog eating champion, and how he used his own research to improve his eating performance to win at championships. But it's all there - why slave owners licked their slaves, why David Lee Roth insisted on no M&Ms on his music tours, Nigerian scammers.
There's something for everyone. It's far-reaching, mind-expanding, and just might change the way you see the world. I've started listening to their podcasts since reading this, and am enjoying those.
Great stuff, highly recommend. If you haven't read their above-mentioned books before, do look them up as well. Some of the best non-fiction I've ever tried.