by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner.
A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.
Steven D Levitt is an interesting man. He is a trained and expert economist, who doesn’t really like economics. Someone highly skilled in the use of a suite of tools, but who chooses not to use them in the context or the way in which they are routinely used. He thus deserves the title of maverick as he takes his toolkit of measurement and data analysis and points it, not towards the same questions as his erstwhile colleagues, to be used in the same way to glean the same answers. Instead he focuses his attention wherever his interest takes him.
Mavericks are interesting people, they do the unexpected, and see the unseen, and through this book he illustrates what can be discovered if you truly explore questions rather than being led by the existing answers.
As a maverick he needed the guiding hand of a writer, Stephen J Dubner, to settle the ideas long enough to create a book. Together they have created a stimulating volume which will have you seeing new things in the topics they have covered, which range from how elections are won, how teachers and sumo wrestlers cheat, how your estate agent works or doesn’t work for you, to how profitable it is to sell illegal drugs.
Steven delights in taking conventional wisdom, and examining it through his measurement trained thinking. He discovers that much conventional wisdom, is strong on conventional, but weak on wisdom. As you read the pages you’ll discover that money doesn’t win elections, that its far more dangerous to have a swimming pool in the garden than a gun in the house and that the biggest contributor to the reduction in serious crime in the United States were changes to the abortion law.
For example in one chapter the book explores the often considered question of nature v nurture. As parents this is a question that sometimes haunts us. How much of what our children become comes from genetics and how much from the way we raise them? Through analysis of a mound of data, including that of children adopted and raised by non genetic parents they concluded an interesting result. Their conclusion is that what we do has little impact on our children, what we are being is what matters.
This has a very strong resonance with my thinking. To paraphrase; taking your child to the museum has no impact on their development, but being the kind of parent who thinks of taking their child to the museum is all important. The subtlety of this difference, I believe divides those that simply ‘do’ change, from those that become change.
More fundamental than describing new insights, their aim is not to change what you think, but how you think. This is nicely captured in their description in the closing paragraphs of the book.
‘You might become more sceptical of common wisdom; you may begin looking for hints as to how things aren’t quite what they seem.; perhaps you will seek out some trove of data and sift through it, balancing your intelligence and your intuition to arrive at a glimmering new idea. Some of these ideas might make you uncomfortable, even unpopular…. You will find yourself asking a lot of questions. Many of them will lead to nothing. But some will produce answers that are interesting, even surprising.’
This is an entertaining read which will help you question much conventional wisdom, and perhaps spur you on to take this questioning with you wherever you go. So inspired, who knows what power for change this may give you.
November 22 2006.
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