Saturday 7 December 2019

More freaky stories left me underwhelmed

Book review: Think Like a Freak - by Stephen Levitt & Stephen Dubner

Author Stephen Dubner

Nick Summers

It turns out that you can judge a Freakonomics book by its cover. The original work of pop science, subtitled 'A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything', had a nifty orange-inside-an-apple illustration on the front, and it delivered unexpectedly juicy insights into topics such as abortion and sumo wrestling.

The sequel, SuperFreakonomics, showed that same mutant fruit bursting open, and indeed it contained more, bigger, freakier arguments, about global warming, terrorism, car seats, and more. The cover of the third instalment, 'Think Like a Freak', depicts a little black swirl, something one might doodle in a notebook. It fits, because this is a book that feels dashed off.

That's not what fans of the series have come to expect. The authors, Steven Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Dubner, a journalist, have sold more than five million books by using "the dismal science" to ingeniously detect secret incentives in our world and then relate them in pithy ways: why swimming pools are more dangerous than guns; how real estate agents profit when homeowners sell for less.

This latest edition, the authors write, is something different–a kind of annotated instruction manual that "can teach anyone to think like a Freak." It's self-help for the reader who worries he isn't counterintuitive enough at parties.

To be more like them, Levitt and Dubner offer guidelines that are valuable but surely obvious. Admit what you don't know. Make sure you ask the right questions. Use stories to convince stubborn opponents. The problem is with the stories Levitt and Dubner summon. For a pair that has constructed an entire media enterprise–books, blog, podcast, speaking gigs–out of the construction and detonation of epistemological bombshells, their ammunition here is startlingly dull.

Obesity, aspiring Freaks are informed, is likely caused not by eating fatty food but by sugar and carbohydrates. Isn't that pretty well-known? Ditto for the non-revelation that ulcers come from bacteria, not stress.

Cars are deadlier than planes, but air crashes get more attention.

Levitt and Dubner intend for their anecdotes to illustrate how people think, but they set them up to astound as much as the genuinely surprising conclusions in their first books. The result is the unfamiliar Freakonomics sensation of feeling underwhelmed.

Not everything in the book is common knowledge. There's a compelling theory as to why Nigerian e-mail scammers continue to say, right up top, that they are e-mailing from Nigeria. And Van Halen's no-brown-M&M's rider clause turns out to have had a valid purpose.

This is how brands end, with the sound of scraping the bottom of a barrel. In the book's last chapter, about the virtues of quitting, Levitt and Dubner wonder if they too should throw in the towel. "After three Freakonomics books, can we possibly have more to say–and will anyone care?" I think they know the answer.

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