Book: Freakonomics

I’ve been a bit behind on blogging but I’m trying to catch up this week. I wrote earlier that I’ve just finished an excellent software development book (with a very unfortunate title), Working Effectively With Legacy Code. Freakonomics is an entirely different kind of book, and one I actually finished reading last year but just haven’t gotten around to writing about.

Freakonomics is a New York Times bestseller, so I’m hardly the first person to read and discuss it. If you’re one of the three people who haven’t read it yet, let me explain the concept. Steven Levitt is an economist and Stephen Dubner is a journalist. Together, they tackle some interesting (at least to them) questions by applying statistical methods typically used by economists on somewhat more mundane scenarios. From the book’s jacket:

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? How did legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?

The book is broken down into a chapters that each cover a particular question. It’s very easy reading, and most of the topics are quite interesting as well. It’s interesting to look at these questions and how the authors have found data to support their conclusions. If nothing else, this is an excellent “cocktail party” book, in that it will give you some interesting things to say at the next party you attend.

The authors found some interesting patterns among children’s names over time and across racial and economic boundaries. They also looked at a variety of different contributing factors to children’s test scores, and noted which did or did not have a strong correlation (note: not necessarily a causal relationship). For example, four(of 8 described in the book) factors that are strongly correlated with test scores are:

  • The child has highly educated parents.
  • The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status.
  • The child is adopted.
  • The child’s mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth.

Four (of 8) factors that are not correlated with test scores:

  • The child’s family is intact.
  • The child frequently watches television.
  • The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.
  • The child’s parents read to him nearly every day.

It’s interesting as a parent of two children (one adopted) which pieces of the puzzle, statistically speaking across a large sample size, tend to matter and which do not. Obviously at the individual level, every family and every child is different, but having some kind of data to go on can provide some insight into priorities one should assign to things.

The current edition of the book also has about 100 pages of bonus material from the Freakonomics blog and some of their newspaper publications, which include coverage of things like Wikipedia and a diet that looks at appetite from an economist’s perspective, and introduces a very simple way to suppress appetite (and in turn, lose weight). The diet article is interesting in its simplicity, and one that led me to pick up a book on the subject (which I’ll blog about when I have some time).

I enjoyed the book; it’s great discussion fodder. Some of the information might actually be useful (for instance, the parenting chapters and perhaps the diet one), but for the most part it provides some entertainment value and a new perspective on a wide variety of subjects usually untouched by anything resembling scientific research (at least not in an approachable format – scientific journals are not fun reads).