Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

freakonomicsI never studied (or considered studying) economics in high school or uni. So the closest I’ve come to reading anything about economics is in fact a book that is perhaps disputed at being related to economics at all.

But it’s a highly recommended read and I think it achieve its purpose of making us reassess and rethink our assumptions.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Written by economist Steven Levitt and Journalist Stephen Dubner, this non-fiction, yet anecdotally written book, is a collection of articles where Levitt applies economic theory to unconventional subjects. Refusing to apply economics to the typical topics of share markets, Levitt instead studies data on:

  • Cheating by school students and sumo wrestlers
  • What do real estate agents and the Ku Klux Klan have in common
  • The economics of crack dealing
  • The effect of good parenting on children

One particular thing that struck me about Freakonomics is how it uses data to surprise us and make us reassess our assumptions/perceptions. For example, in this excerpt, the book talks about parents’ fears. For example, their daughter has two friends – one whose house has a handgun (licensed presumably) and one whose house has a swimming pool. The parents don’t allow their daughter to go to the house with the handgun for fear of an accident occurring. That seems reasonable!

Yet, when Levitt examined the actual statistical occurrence of kids being killed by handgun accidents at home versus swimming pool accidents – the parents’ fears/actions seem silly! The data found that there was 100 times more likelihood of a kid drowning in a swimming pool at a home than being killed by a gun accident at home.

Levitt then goes on to discuss the basis for this fear – Is it the seeming ordinariness of pools vs guns? Is it the fact that drownings are more commonplace and therefore we are desensitised to it? Is it the fact that we feel in control with swimming pools, because we can swim?

Freakonomics is littered with a lot of these other interesting anecdotal stories, where Levitt uses data to overturn our assumptions. In that way, I think it’s very interesting for students to consider:

  • What are our assumptions/perceptions/fears?
  • What is the basis for these? Facts? Feelings? Manipulation by corporations/governments?

This then leads me to think about how this text could be used as a related text for Conflicting Perspectives. You can consider using the whole book, or simply a chapter or just an article written by Levitt.

If so, I would recommend discussing the following:

  • What conflicting perspectives does Levitt/Dubner reveal to us?
  • How does Levitt/Dubner make us question these perspectives and how we perceive the world?
  • What is the effect of the book’s form (non-fiction) and the writing style (anecdotal)?
  • What are some of the criticisms of this book?

The last point is perhaps the most important as I think the Conflicting Perspectives module is significantly not only about how the text reveals differing views, but about how students must be aware that the text itself is inevitably a perspective in itself.


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