Freakonomics | Study Guide

Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

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Freakonomics | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, published in 2005, is a collection of economic articles that pushes the boundaries of what is traditionally considered valid in the study of global finance and the operation of markets.

Written by Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics, and Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist, Freakonomics examines a wide array of interesting case studies in economic theory. The authors view unique and under-researched models of financial thought, including the economics of drug dealing, the ripple effect of legalized abortion on crime rates, and the role that cheating plays in fiscal growth. Some of Levitt and Dubner's cases and conclusions have led to criticism from within the field of economics, but their enigmatic take on financial study has earned the book great popularity. Freakonomics subsequently spawned a 2010 documentary adaptation and a blog that continued to investigate interesting applications of economic thought in contemporary culture.

1. Freakonomics led to an intense academic lawsuit.

In April 2006, the economist John R. Lott Jr. filed a lawsuit for defamation against Levitt. The suit stemmed from a particular paragraph in Freakonomics in which Levitt argues against Lott's thesis that allowing citizens to possess concealed weapons led to a decline in crime rates. In the passage, Levitt argues:

Regardless of whether the data were faked, Lott's admittedly intriguing hypothesis doesn't seem to be true. When other scholars have tried to replicate his results, they found that right-to-carry laws simply don't bring down crime.

The enraged Lott contended that the suggestion that he may have "faked" his research constituted defamation, leading to a lengthy academic legal drama. In 2009 the case was formally dismissed, with an odd agreement made: Levitt had to write a letter of clarification to John McCall—another scholar whom Levitt had written to—renouncing his earlier claim that Lott may have accepted bribes for his gun-related research. The letter was later referred to as "a doozy of a concession."

2. Freakonomics owed its success to a unique marketing plan involving bloggers.

The best-selling success of Freakonomics was the result of a groundbreaking marketing technique in publishing. Although some credited the book's high sales to the illustrious backgrounds of its authors and to several high-profile reviews in traditional outlets such as Kirkus and The Wall Street Journal, it was actually bloggers who did the most to promote Freakonomics.

The publisher, William Morrow, used Freakonomics to pioneer a new marketing style: the use of small-scale book review blogs to generate hype. A special publicity firm, BzzAgent, was called in to distribute the book to nearly 1,000 "possible supporters" to consider for online review. This "word-of-mouth" technique has been used for numerous new titles since, but Freakonomics was the first book to see a great return from the method.

3. Analysts have worked hard to debunk Freakonomics' claim that legalized abortion reduces crime rates.

One of the most controversial claims that Levitt and Dubner propose in Freakonomics is that the legalization of abortion had a visible, and directly correlative, effect on lowering crime rates in the United States. Shortly after the book's publication, economists Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz aimed to find the holes in Levitt and Dubner's data regarding abortion. Foote and Goetz claimed that the abortion claim ignored many other factors contributing to crime that can't be properly analyzed with computer models, such as the crime surge during New York City's crack epidemic. Though Levitt and Dubner claimed their model accounted for such variables, Foote and Goetz said they succumbed to an "inadvertent but serious computer programming error." When the error was corrected in a subsequent model, the result of legalized abortion on crime was only half as notable as Freakonomics had claimed.

4. Freakonomics was banned in Texas prisons for "racial content."

In 2017 The Guardian released an article mocking the extensive list of banned books within the network of Texas state prisons. Among the 10,073 banned titles are Where's Waldo?, a collection of Shakespeare's sonnets, and Freakonomics. Levitt and Dubner's book was allegedly banned for "racial content," likely stemming from the article on the economics of drug dealing, which prison officials felt could lead to "offender disruption." However, books written by well-known tyrants and hate groups are not banned—such as Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf as well as several books authored by Ku Klux Klan leaders.

5. Dubner had his first work published when he was a child—a poem about an opossum.

In addition to coauthoring Freakonomics, Dubner has had an extremely successful career as a journalist for the New York Times. However, the discovery of Dubner's first published work—featured on the Freakonomics blog—endeared readers to him even more. At age 9, Dubner had his poem, "The Opossum," published in Highlights, a children's magazine. The poem reads:

The opposum has many teeth,
All in two neat rows.
His tracks you know anywhere,
Because of his weird toes.
He's not too big, not too small,
He's just the right size.
He's just a little fuzzy guy,
With clear, coal-black eyes.

6. Critics have accused Freakonomics of being a sociology book, not an economics book.

Some critics claim that Freakonomics was marketed incorrectly and belongs in a different genre. One economist, in particular, noted that due to the speculative nature of many of the book's case studies, it should be considered a work of sociology and not viewed as economically sound. Arnold Kling wrote:

If readers come away from this book thinking that they have discovered how economics ought to be done, I would indeed consider it a "sad development." The book is most notable for its willingness to pass off speculative and tentative findings as though they were well-vetted, settled facts.

Another critic, Ariel Rubinstein, claimed that Levitt uses his status as an economist to "[lash] out at the entire world from the Olympus of economics."

7. Freakonomics has been called a work of "academic imperialism."

In addition to claiming that Freakonomics may have been falsely categorized as an economic text, economics professor Ariel Rubinstein also called the book an example of "academic imperialism." In an article entitled "Freak-Freakonomics," based on the format of Levitt and Dubner's book, Rubinstein argues that economists mirror political imperialism, such as colonization, by attempting to exert their perspective on a number of seemingly unrelated fields, such as criminology or environmental studies. He claims that this can have a negative impact on these fields of study, as it reduces them all to observations of economic theory. Rubinstein claims:

The complex interplay of feelings of superiority and deficiency has driven every empire, and economics is no different. ... Freakonomics makes statistical reasoning, which is used in all the sciences, look like a subdued colony of economics.

8. Levitt and Dubner were embarrassed to discover they'd been told an exaggerated story about the Ku Klux Klan.

Another scandal involving Freakonomics came to light when Levitt and Dubner realized they'd been given false information regarding the Ku Klux Klan, which they included in the book. The authors had to write a clarifying article in the New York Times regarding their chapter, "How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?" The chapter detailed the work of Stetson Kennedy, an activist who infiltrated the KKK in order to expose its members and their injustices.

However, Levitt and Dubner later discovered that much of Kennedy's story did not check out and that he may have embellished quite a bit. Despite his committed activism, the authors found that the majority of his tales about infiltrating the group were likely false, and they were forced to admit their embarrassment at the oversight.

9. Levitt and Dubner wrote a sequel, entitled SuperFreakonomics.

The undeniable success of Freakonomics led Levitt and Dubner to work on a sequel, entitled SuperFreakonomics, which was published in 2009. SuperFreakonomics follows the format of the original, viewing odd case studies through an economic lens, with topics such as training apes to use money and the methods used by banks to track terrorists.

The sequel didn't receive the same rave reviews as Freakonomics, however, with The Guardian comparing Levitt and Dubner to a once-popular, washed-up rock band and stating that they suffered from "'difficult second book' syndrome."

10. Levitt was named one of Time magazine's "100 People Who Shape Our World."

In 2006, one year after the publication of Freakonomics, Levitt received the honor of being included on Time magazine's list of "100 People Who Shape Our World." Levitt received praise for tackling difficult questions from a unique standpoint in Freakonomics. Time particularly praised his controversial study on abortion and crime rates, noting:

Does the possibility that abortion reduces crime raise uncomfortable questions? Of course it does. But Levitt believes that if we are to have an honest conversation about things like crime and abortion, we are obliged to consider those phenomena in all their dimensions. It takes a certain amount of courage to make an argument like that.

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