Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen j. Dubner

Most economists wrestle with terms of power and money inherent in societies, but Steven Levitt is not your typical economist. He looks at questions most economists never think to ask, and doesn't accept the "accepted wisdom", asking why things are the way they are. And his looking at various parts of society that never get examined by most economists often brings strange and fruitful answers up into the light that most people would never realize.

For example, cheating. Levitt exposes cheating in two places- Chicago schools and in Sumo wrestling. For example, Sumo wrestlers at a certain level of competition must win eight bouts to pass into the elite tournament. And if you look at a Wrestler who is 8-6 in their bouts will often fight wrestlers ranked 7-7. You might expect a wrestler who is already ranked 8-6 to win slightly more often in that last bout because he is slightly better than the other wrestler. But this often turns out not to be the case. But why?

The answer goes back to the Sumo Culture. Most of the top Sumo wrestlers know each other, and indeed, have trained with each other. The 8-6 wrestler knows he will be moving on to the elite competition. But because winning the match won't confer any additional benefit to the wrestler who already knows he's moving on, he often seems to let his opponent win simply to allow them a chance to enter the elite tournament with him. Now, the Sumo wrestling federation maintains that there is no cheating, but then, how to explain those results? (In fact, these elite tournaments were stopped in 2008 simply because of claims of this sort of cheating.

Similar are claims of cheating in academic tests in Chicago teachers. Some teachers will attempt to simply give their students the answers on the board during the test, while others cheat after the fact, correcting the answers their students give. But in both cases, this can be discovered. In the first case, one of the students came home and told her mother, quite cheerfully, how her teacher put the answers on the board for them while they were taking the test. In the second case, while students got earlier, easier answers wrong, they got later, harder answers correct.

The teachers, in both cases, were caught. But there are subtler ways of trying to cheat that may not get caught when the teacher or class is actually cheating. The best way to measure student achievement to track it over time. if a set of students have truly learned from a teacher, they will retain that knowledge into the next grade. If they mysteriously "forget" what they supposedly learned, it's a pretty good bet that they never really "learned" the information in the first place. But if they not only retain but build on the knowledge, it's also a good bet that the teacher they learned from is superior.

In addition, the authors take on how drug dealers are like any other corporations, how the Klu Klux Klan are like Real Estate Agents (and how they were taken down by the writers of Superman, no less!), why crime dropped in the 90's, what good parents do to help their kids succeed, and how your child's name can be an indicator of success, and why outlandishly-spelled names can cause your kids to do less well in life and in school.

While some of the conclusions of this book have been called into question (specifically the contention that crime went down in the 90's as a result of abortions that happened in the 70's after abortion was decriminalized), but the others have not been disproven, as far as I know. This is still a pretty mind-blowing book, linking together several things that actually seem counter-intuitive, and as a result, are surprising.

Well, perhaps not quite counter-intuitive, but definitely against common wisdom, and shows that common wisdom is often not what is right or correct. Some of the stories in this book are definitely interesting, like the one about how the KKK was defanged by the writers of Superman (and a spy who infiltrated the organization). Since then, it's still around, but not in the same large way it was in the 50's and before.

This may not have the same sort of impact it once did, but it remains a fascinating look at life and various things within it and how quickly names change from being trendy to being past when it is adopted by people perceived as being lower class. This book is still interestin and makes a great read. Recommended.

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