Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Book Review: Freakonomics

On the suggestion from a friend, I picked up this book that is co-authored by one economist (Steven Levitt) and a writer (Stephen Dubner). I was not prepared to enjoy this book as much as a did because economics is the one subject I was in danger of flunking in college. Back when I took the course, I thought something was wrong with me because I just didn't "get it", but maybe I should also thank my horrible professor for my lack of interest in economics, too.

The premise of this book is that trends are not always what they seem. The authors did a good job of explaining the difference between causality and co-existence (although that's not the term they used). For instance, it happens that people with decidedly "ethnic" names do worse, in general, versus people with "white" names. It's not the names that caused them to do badly, but the study looked at the type of people who choose one type of name over another and how they are "peforming in life". I like that this book gives the disclaimer up front that it has no clear path, because it did jump around a bit. For example, one chapter was entitled "What Do Sumo Wrestlers and Teachers Have In Common?". Can you guess what it is? I was skeptical at first, but what the authors asserted made sense to me. (No, I'm not going to spill the beans - you'll have to read it yourself). Then, the book jumps to such subjects as "drug dealers living with their mothers" to "what makes a perfect parent"? The latter subject is what interested me the most, for obvious reasons. It's funny because one of the things I've always believed is that, since I religiously read to my son, that affected his literacy skills. To this day, reading is his best subject in school - he is 13 and tests out at beyond 12th grade. But maybe it's just genetics. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense that a certain portion of our abilities is "predetermined". After all, I do not believe that most of the parents of the students I work with have caused their children's disabilities, even the ones who have treated their children questionably. This is especially true since other parents, as much as I can tell, have provided every possible advantage to their child, and their child still has a disability. Yet, one of the questions I get asked the most by parents is "What did I do to cause this?". I think the reason this gets asked is because the question assumes that there is something that can be done to "fix" the problem. Also, most parents I have come across, including myself, have some level of guilt over every little screw-up they've made in the raising of their child.

I think what the authors want the reader to do, after finishing the book, is to question more of the "data" that is presented. It reminded me of one of my grad classes having to do with research - one of our assignments was to read literature in our field and question the results to attempt to find fault with the findings. You know, they never teach you to question things in undergrad, or in elementary school, or in a strict family, or in church. We spend most of our lives thinking that questioning others is a bad thing. As a result of many influences in my life and getting tired of being naive, I question more things - mostly what the media presents to us. I question the real intent of commercials. I question other people, who, for the most part, aren't used to it and tend not to like it. Is the comfortable and "logical" thing always right? I think that's what we're supposed to wonder about...

Overall, I give this book 8 dancing feet out of 10 - it's a good read and certainly makes a person think. Not altogether a bad thing to do.


Blogger The Zombieslayer said...

To this day, reading is his best subject in school - he is 13 and tests out at beyond 12th grade. But maybe it's just genetics.

Well, a little of both. You've done a fine job parenting if you've spent time reading to him. Nothing is more important in parenting than quality time.

As for guilt, just decide not to feel it. We all make mistakes, and nobody's a perfect parent. Parenting is hard. The best thing you can do is try to make the time you have together count. That's pretty much all you can do as a parent.

As for the book, interesting subject matter. I'm very curious what sumo wrestlers and teachers have in common.

1:16 AM  
Blogger Notta Wallflower said...

ZS - Yeah, I'm a "middle of the road" gal. I don't believe there's just one answer for every question in life. As far as guilt, I'll have to work on that. It's easier for some people than it is for others. :-)

6:38 AM  
Blogger ~d (tilde) said...

I tend to shy away from self-help books or non-fiction for that reason. Somewhere I got it into my head that it is more like homework to read those types of books. HOWEVER-your assessment (?) does spark my interest!
I may have to ( ahem! ) try it out.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Angelique said...

Sounds like a good book! I will have to check it out. I agree with you, I believe that people should be question stuff more. It's one of things I realized when I went back to school at age 25 from working. Most of the students in my classrooms accepted the data presented and didn't question it. I guess with age comes experience and the knowledge that you don't believe everything your told.

1:46 PM  
Blogger tshsmom said...

I believe that that's the 2nd(1st is reading to them) most important thing we've taught our kids-question authority, check your facts, don't blindly accept the status quo. These were all things that my parents discouraged. They encouraged blind obedience. :(

3:31 PM  
Blogger Notta Wallflower said...

~d - I wouldn't call this a "self help" type of book. It's just non-fiction. One economist's ideas about what is happening based on what he knows. Interesting stuff.

Angelique - You would like this book, then, because it brings up things that are real life and puts a new spin on what used to be "conventional wisdom".

TSHS - Well, I grew up in a mixed household. I would say that my biological parents have never encouraged me to "follow blindly". However, my stepdad used to say "because I said so" when we asked "why?". Also, I was around my grandparents a lot and they were "old school". You don't question certain things - they've done it this way for years and that's the way it should be.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I keep meaning to pick up this book. I will have to now.

"The authors did a good job of explaining the difference between causality and co-existence"

The difference between correlation and causation is something that most people (and media outlets) do not know enough about. This should be part of basic information literacy - and it's not. Did you know that there's a correlation between ice cream sales and murder rates? That's always the example they'd use in stats class about why you can't say one causes the other.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Notta Wallflower said...

Laura - That reminds me of a conversation I had with a guy I was sitting next to a while back. He was saying that they found that serial murderers had one thing in common - excessive use of porn. He didn't even go beyond that to think that maybe they have higher testosterone levels, which may increase their aggressive tendencies, and that it has nothing to do with porn. That is incidental.

12:44 PM  

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