Dec 162008

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything was published a long time ago, way back in 2005, but it took my bookclub until this year to decide to read it. Hey, no point in being too fast, if a book is worthwhile it will still be worthwhile a couple of years later, right? In this case, it is. There is an updated version, but even the older version has a way of looking at the world that’s worth pondering. Wikipedia and the official book site have summaries, and there’s now a related blog.

The most famous part of the book is the one that asks how far the decrease in crime in the 1990s was due to the potential criminals never having been born; there has rightly been a lot of discussion about that (Wikipedia has a decent summary of some of the points). That discussion has tended to overshadow the other parts of the book, some of which bear more thinking about. One good example is the way that gangs were organised So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, which, if taken seriously by people trying to get rid of gangs, might lead to different ways of tackling them. The discussion about how the Ku Klux Klan was made ridiculous by incorporating it into the Superman radio show was good, even if who did exactly what when is unclear.

Above all, the book appeals if you’re someone who asks whether there are other explanations for things, past the seemingly obvious. Like the book says, conventional wisdom is often wrong, and it’s refreshing to read about some of the ways in which it is. Normally we don’t discuss non-fiction books for very long at bookclub, but this book was an exception. Most of our discussion was along the lines of “does it make sense that” or coming up with alternative hypotheses to explain some of their data. It would have helped if we’d seen some more of the actual mathematics so we could have been a little more sure of how they did the regression testing, but that’s a minor quibble and I’m sure most of the book’s audience didn’t miss it.

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