"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Day 8: An overrated book

Oh, is it ever easy to choose a book in this category.

I have already made it clear that I hate economics.  I also scoff at media types who try to sound trendy by coining new words out of supposedly cool lingo like “freak”.  Hence Freakonomics is an obvious candidate for my wrath.  Nonetheless, by disdain for this book is rooted much deeper than the title.  I loath this book for many reasons, but chiefly because it’s a fraud.

Let me start from the beginning.  Freakonomics is written by “a rogue economist” (sigh) named Steven Levitt–he did all the research, Dubner merely assisted with the writing–who supposedly made brilliant discoveries by applying statistical methods from economics to all kinds of areas in social studies.  Many of these discoveries aren’t actually very brilliant at all.  For instance, after much number-crunching, Levitt discovers that real estate agents put more effort into selling their own homes than selling their clients’ homes.  To which any reasonable person can only respond, of course they do.  Why on earth would they do anything else.

One major problem with the book is that Levitt cares much more about being clever than being right.  One chapter is entitled “What do Sumo Wrestlers and Teachers have in Common?”  If you find this title annoying, then you know where I’m coming from.  The answer Levitt gives is that both groups cheat.  Sumo Wrestlers sometimes co-operate to ensure that those who need a victory in a certain match get it.  Public school teachers, whose careers depend on their students’ test scores, will sometimes erase wrong answers and substitute right ones on answer sheets to get ahead.  Of course, this highlights the difference between the two groups,  not the similarity.  Sumo wrestlers are in a “buddy system” of sorts where they try to help each other, while teachers try to get ahead of each other by unfair means.  Levitt doesn’t seem to notice such differences.

Levitt’s most famous claim, though, is that legalizing abortion cut the crime rate.  According to him, after Roe vs. Wade, the number of children being born to unwanted went down, because women with an unwanted pregnancy could now get an abortion.  Meanwhile, women who actually wanted children did not get abortions, and thus with more children being raised in homes where they were wanted, children were less likely to be mistreated, neglected, and pushed into a life of crime.  It’s a cute theory and it can be easily disproved with just two graphs.

Roe vs. Wade was in 1972.  As we see from these graphs, crime rates by teenagers spiked upwards in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Thus children born after Roe vs. Wade were much more likely to commit crimes, not less.  Levitt cites other statistics to supposedly prove his point, but those have been debunked as well.  Steve Sailor has done an excellent job thoroughly shredding Levitt’s entire argument on this issue, which I highly recommend reading here:

Did Legalizing Abortion Cut Crime?

So that’s why I sneer at Freakonomics.  It’s fraudulent and dishonest, sleazy, oh-so-clever, and flat-out dumb.  Not surprisingly, many of modern America’s leading opinion-makers loved it.  It received glowing reviews from sources as diverse as The New York Times and The Weekly Standard.  Which leads me to a suggested rule: any book that is praised by both the New York Times and The Weekly Standard is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

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Comments on: "Day 8: An overrated book" (3)

  1. haha…this is a good choice. I find titles like that super-annoying, and while I don’t hate economics, I hate to see complex topics being dumbed down in such a kiddish way.

  2. Great post.

    I Teach and economics, and while I am pleased that Freakonomics have got some of my students reading, it does frustrate that this is often all they read and I worry they get a warped sense of what economics really is.

    I will certainly make use of the two graphs you have found there, what was the source?

    (As a side note, I read your two posts about hating economics. Seemed to be me more about hating a select group of econominists rather than economics in general.)

    • The graphs come from the article that I linked to by Steve Sailor.

      As for hating economics, it’s true that I don’t hate all economics. I’ve written some posts about economics that I do like. For example, during the book project I wrote about E. F. Schmuacher’s book “Small is Beautiful”.

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