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April 28, 2007

Feeling Freakosophical

The paperback edition of Freakonomics contains a postscript that mentions my review of the hardback edition. That piece ran two years ago this weekend. In the course of listing various comments that were not entirely enthusiastic, the authors refer to

a Newsday review, by Scott McLemee, which chided the book's "style of evasive lucidity"; [and] a review in Time magazine, which said that the "unfortunately titled Freakonomics" has "no unifying theory ... which is a shame." (In fairness to ourselves, we should note that both the Time and Newsday reviews were largely positive.)

Now, it's true that I seldom reread my work after it is published, and tend to forget what I've written pretty quickly once the last revision is done. (Forward ever, backward never.) But this reference to the review as "largely positive" certainly came as a surprise, for I do have some recollection of the book, and it is not a fond one.

I never did see the review in Time, but thanks to the magic of the Internet am able to revisit my own thoughts on the book. Good luck to any publicist trying to extract a blurb-able nugget from this:

Any 10 pages of Freakonomics would be the equivalent of a really good newspaper article explaining, say, how to analyze the results of the sumo playoffs in Japan in order to determine whether some wrestlers took a fall. Or how the revelation of secret passwords on a radio program damaged the Ku Klux Klan's ability to collect the dues that made the Invisible Empire a successful business. Or the rise and fall of popular baby names.

But as each idiosyncratic inquiry gives way to the next, no logical pattern takes shape. A reasonably bright 12-year-old might feel condescended to by some accounts of the analytical tools that Levitt uses. One of the most important, the statistical method called regression analysis, is explained only two thirds of the way through the book. The writing is so smooth that it seldom gives traction to anything worth calling a concept, at least beyond the notion that the conventional wisdom is often wrong (itself a piece of conventional wisdom).

Unlike the reviewer at Time who found "no unifying theory" in the book, I attempted to suss one out:

My sense is that Levitt does have an idea, which goes something like this. The market is (as one school of economics has it) a rational system in which price serves as a signal allowing the exchange of information about the availability and best allotment of resources. But other kinds of information are also part of the market -- and some forms of information are scarce, hence valuable. Thus, there is an incentive to keep that information scarce. Someone armed with the right insights, however, could account for seemingly irrational aspects of the system by finding the regularities beneath the surface.

Elements of this idea are dispersed throughout the text like bits of marshmallow embedded in a gelatin dessert. And the effect on mental nutrition is comparable.

So it is a pleasure to read Kieran Healey's review of the book in Sociological Forum, more or less corroborating my surmise. At this point I'm left trying to figure out just how negative a review of Freakonomics would have to be before the authors couldn't dub it "largely positive."

(crossposted from Cliopatria)

Posted by smclemee at April 28, 2007 6:52 PM

COMMENTS

economist ariel rubinstein's
seriously funny review
(in pdf format):

http://arielrubinstein.tau.ac.il/papers/freak.pdf

Posted by: vlorbik.com at April 30, 2007 1:53 PM

I'm sure you saw the article in this Sunday's NYT Book Review about the misuse of reviews in book blurbs . . . I thought of this posting the moment I read it . . .

Posted by: Random Kath at May 1, 2007 11:15 AM

Thanks, RK. Actually I haven't read that yet but did notice that people were talking about it. Will check it out soon.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at May 1, 2007 11:27 AM