[extropy-chat] Curiouser and curiouser

Terry W. Colvin fortean1 at mindspring.com
Tue May 17 05:20:32 UTC 2005

  < http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=3960469 >

Unconventional wisdom

Curiouser and curiouser
May 12th 2005
 >From The Economist print edition

Many economists don't care whether sumo wrestling is fixed, or whether 
drug dealers prefer to live with their mothers. It is their loss

WHAT a shame about that title. "Freakonomics" is bound to dampen the 
spirits of any intelligent reader, suggesting an airport-ready, 
dumbed-down romp--the back cover would inevitably call it a 
romp--through the bogus theories of some semi-literate phoney economist. 
But that is not this book at all. Steven Levitt is no "rogue economist", 
still less a phoney one; and his book, praise be, does not try to 
explore "the hidden side of everything". Far more intelligent, modest 
and orthodox than it pretends, the book is a delight; it educates, 
surprises and amuses. It shows, in fact, what plain old-fashioned 
economics can do in the hands of a boundlessly curious and superbly 
skilled practitioner.

Mr Levitt is a professor at the University of Chicago, and a winner of 
the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded by the American Economic Association 
every two years to the best economist under 40. Not many rogue 
economists achieve either distinction. Stephen Dubner, Mr Levitt's 
co-author, is a contributor to the New York Times magazine, and 
presumably responsible for the book's frequently tiresome 
breathlessness. And it might be Mr Dubner's fault that the book often 
veers without due process between being about Mr Levitt and being by 
him, which is jarring. But the material triumphs over these flaws of 
style. Indeed, the material is quite fascinating.


Mr Levitt's speciality is to spot interesting questions that arise in 
apparently unrelated fields--questions that it may not even have 
occurred to anyone else to ask--and then answer them with dazzling 
ingenuity. The man's curiosity is unbounded in two complementary senses. 
He finds intriguing anomalies in extraordinarily arcane places--for 
instance, in sumo wrestling and in alternative spellings of the name 
Jasmine, to name just two topics examined in this book. And then he digs 
for explanations with total disregard for the demands of political 
correctness. You might say that he rejoices in being politically 
incorrect, except that he seems not to care much one way or the other.

One of his best-known, and in some quarters notorious, findings concerns 
America's falling crime-rate during the 1990s. Towards the end of that 
decade, confounding the expectations of most analysts, the teenage 
murder rate fell by more than 50% in the space of five years; by 2000, 
the book notes, the overall murder rate was at its lowest for 35 years. 
Other kinds of crime fell too. Why? Some gave the credit to economic 
growth; others to gun control; still others to new methods of policing, 
or to greater reliance on imprisonment, or to increasing use of the 
death penalty, or to the ageing of the population.

Mr Levitt goes carefully through these various explanations, checking 
them against the evidence. He finds that some of them do offer a partial 
explanation (more jail time, for instance), whereas others do not 
(greater use of the death penalty, new policing methods). But the most 
intriguing finding was that one of the most powerful explanations had 
not even been broached. That explanation was abortion.

The reasoning is simple enough. In January 1973, the Supreme Court made 
abortion legal throughout the United States, where previously it had 
been available in only five states. In 1974, roughly 750,000 women had 
abortions in America; by 1980, the number was 1.6m (one abortion for 
every 2.3 live births). "What sort of woman was most likely to take 
advantage of Roe v Wade?" the book asks. "Very often she was unmarried 
or in her teens or poor, and sometimes all three...In other words, the 
very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion 
also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would 
have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives...In the early 1990s, just 
as the first cohort of children born after Roe v Wade was hitting its 
late teen years--the years during which young men enter their criminal 
prime--the rate of crime began to fall."

The theory is the easy part, once you dare to articulate it. Testing it 
is quite another matter. But the book moves methodically and 
persuasively through the statistical evidence. It turns out, for 
instance, that crime started falling earlier in the states that 
legalised abortion before Roe v Wade; that the states with the highest 
abortion rates saw the biggest drops in crime (even controlling for 
other factors); that there was no link between abortion rates and crime 
before the late 1980s (when unborn criminals, as it were, first began to 
affect the figures); and that a similar association of crime and 
abortion has been found in other countries.

The book ranges over cheating teachers, corrupt sumo wrestlers and lying 
on-line daters. It asks, among other things, whether Trent Lott is more 
racist than the typical contestant on "The Weakest Link". It examines 
parallels between estate agents and the Ku Klux Klan. It asks why drug 
dealers tend to live with their mothers. Always it finds questions that 
are mischievously intriguing in themselves but that also shed light on 
broader matters as well--and then it finds ingenious ways of answering them.

"Freakonomics" looks in particular detail at racial aspects of 
parenting, which is where those variant spellings of Jasmine (or 
Jazmyne, or Jazzmin, and so on) come in. Examining the data, Mr Levitt 
tabulates the "blackest" names (Imani tops the list for girls, DeShawn 
for boys) and the "whitest" (Molly and Jake). Using all his ingenuity in 
finding and exploring data, he then examines whether being given a 
distinctively black or white name affects one's prospects in life. Does 
it? Surprisingly, perhaps, no. A boy named Jake will tend to do better 
than one called DeShawn, but that is because he is less likely to have 
been raised in a low-income, low-education, single-parent household, and 
not because the name itself confers any advantage.

So much for boys' names; what about book titles? Does a stupid title 
herald a worse-than-average book? Probably--if only because books with 
bad titles tend to be written by intellectually disadvantaged authors. 
But if a really clever author were to write a book and give it a really 
stupid title, it might turn out as well as this one.

"Only a zit on the wart on the heinie of progress." Copyright 1992, Frank Rice

Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA) < fortean1 at mindspring.com >
     Alternate: < fortean1 at msn.com >
Home Page: < http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Stargate/8958/index.html >
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veterans, Allies, CIA/NSA, and "steenkeen" contractors are welcome.]

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