Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the co-authors of the immensely popular Freakonomics, are back with their third book in the series: Think Like a Freak. In it, rather than discussing what they think, they talk about how they think.
Levitt and Dubner offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems, whether your interest lies in minor lifehacks or major global reforms. As always, no topic is off-limits. They range from business to philanthropy to sports to politics, all with the goal of retraining your brain. Along the way, you'll learn the secrets of a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, the reason an Australian doctor swallowed a batch of dangerous bacteria, and why Nigerian e-mail scammers make a point of saying they're from Nigeria.
Taking his central cue from Levitt's conviction that "incentives matter," executive producer Seth Gordon ("The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters") directs several introductory segments featuring Levitt (the economist) and Dubner (the journalist) breaking down the book's main assertions, aided by playful 2-D animation. The first of these sequences borrows from an early chapter in the source material, taking on self-interested real estate agents to explain the authors' intention of parsing the motives behind many phenomena often taken for granted. While Gordon's fluffy treatment of his chatty subjects suggests the potential for a "This American Life"-type television series, the individual short films embody their claims with a variety of methods.
How do you follow up a kooky-titled bestseller like Freakonomics? With a book called SuperFreakonomics. It's due out on October 20 and has a subtitle of "Tales of Altruism, Terrorism, and Poorly Paid Prostitutes".
Update: I fucked up on this post and you should reread it if you've read it before. After reading this post by Niall Kennedy, I checked and found that I have mentioned or linked to the site for Freakonomics 5 times (12345), not 13. The other 8 times, I either linked to a post on the Freakonomics blog that was unrelated to the book, had the entry tagged with "freakonomics" (tags are not yet exposed on my site and can't be crawled by search engines), or I used the word "Freakonomists", not "Freakonomics". Bottom line: the NY Times listing is still incorrect, Google and Yahoo picked up all the posts where I actually mentioned "Freakonomics" in the text of the post but missed the 2 links to freakonomics.com, Google Blog Search got 2/3 (& missed the 2 links), Technorati got 1/3 (& missed the 2 links), and IceRocket, Yahoo Blog Search, BlogPulse, & Bloglines whiffed entirely. Steven Levitt would be very disappointed in my statistical fact-checking skills right now. :(
I wish Niall had emailed me about this instead of posting it on his site, but I guess that's how weblogs work, airing dirty laundry instead of trying to get it clean. Fair enough...I've publicly complained about the company he works for (Technorati) instead of emailing someone at the company about my concerns, so maybe he had a right to hit back. Perhaps a little juvenile on both our parts, I'd say. (Oh, and I turned off the MT search thing that Niall used to check my work. I'm not upset he used it, but I'm irritated that it seems to be on by default in MT...I never intended for that search interface to be public.)
This list links to a selection of Web posts that discuss some of the books most frequently mentioned by bloggers in 2005. The books were selected by conducting an automated survey of 5,000 of the most-trafficked blogs.
Unsurprisingly, the top spot on the list went to Freakonomics. I remembered mentioning the book several times on my site (including this interview with author Steven Levitt around the release of the book), so I checked out the citations they had listed for it. According to the Times, Freakonomics was cited by 125 blogs, but not once by kottke.org, a site that by any measure is one of the most-visited blogs out there. A quick search in my installation of Movable Type yielded 13 5 mentions of the book on kottke.org in the last 9 months. I had also mentioned Blink, Harry Potter, Getting Things Done, Collapse, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Singularity is Near, and State of Fear, all of which appear in the top 20 of the Times' list and none of which are cited by the Times as having been mentioned on kottke.org in 2005.
I chalked this up to a simple error of omission, but then I started checking around some more. Google's main index returned only three distinct mentions of Freakonomics on kottke.org. Google Blog Search returned two results. Yahoo: 3 results (0 results on Yahoo's blog search). Technorati only found one result (I'm not surprised). Many of the blog search services don't even let you search by site, so IceRocket, BlogPulse, and Bloglines were of no help. (See above for corrections.) I don't know where the Times got their book statistics from, but it was probably from one of these sites (or a similar service).
Granted this is just one weblog, which I only checked into because I'm the author, but it's not like kottke.org is hard to find or crawl. The markup is pretty good , fairly semantic, and hasn't changed too much for the past two years. The subject in question is not off-topic...I post about books all the time. And it's one of the more visible weblogs out there...lots of links in to the front page and specific posts and a Google PR of 8. So, my point here is not "how dare the Times ignore my popular and important site!!!" but is that the continuing overall suckiness of searching blogs is kind of amazing and embarrassing given the seemingly monumental resources being applied to the task. It's forgivable that the Times would not have it exactly right (especially if they're doing the crawling themselves), but when companies like Technorati and Google are setting themselves up as authorities on how large the blogosphere is, what books and movies people are reading/watching, and what the hot topics online are but can't properly catalogue the most obvious information out there, you've got to wonder a) how good their data really is, and b) if what they are telling us is actually true.
 Full disclosure: I am the author of kottke.org.
 This is an important point...these observations are obviously a starting point for more research about this. But this one hole is pretty gaping and fits well with what I've observed over the past several months trying to find information on blogs using search engines.
 I say only pretty good because it's not validating right now because of entity and illegal character errors, which I obviously need to wrestle with MT to correct at some point. But the underlying markup is solid.
Dr. Levitt was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the book:
jkottke: In Freakonomics, you state that you're interested in applying economic tools to "more interesting" subjects than what one may have learned about in my high school economics class. What's your definition of economics? Is it a tool set or a science or what?
Steven Levitt: I think of economics as a worldview, not a set of topics. This worldview has a few different pieces. First, incentives are paramount. If you understand someone's incentives, you can do a pretty good job of predicting their behavior. Second, the appropriate data, analyzed the right way are key to understanding a problem. Finally, political correctness is irrelevant. Whatever the answer happens to be, whether you think it will be popular or not, that is the answer you put forth.
jkottke: Your talent for ignoring seemingly applicable but ultimately irrelevant information (not that different from a professional-grade batter taking cues from certain aspects of a pitcher's mechanics and ignoring the extraneous ones in order to hit well), where does that come from? Good genes or was it all the books in your childhood home?
Levitt: If nothing else, I had an unusual home environment. My father is a medical researcher whose claim to fame is that he is the world's expert on intestinal gas (he's known as the King of Farts). My mother is a psychic who channels books. From an early age, my life was different from that of other kids. For instance, when I was in junior high, my father would wake me up at night to drill me with questions in hopes that I would be the star of the local high school quiz show.
jkottke: In looking at the world through data, you've investigated cheating schoolteachers, falling crime rates due to abortion, and the parallels between McDonald's corporate structure and the inner workings of a crack-dealing gang. What's the oddest or most surprising thing you've uncovered with this approach? Maybe something you still can't quite believe or explain?
Levitt: It's not the oddest result I've ever come up with, but there is one finding I have always puzzled over: when cities hire lots of Black cops, the arrest rates of Whites go up, but no more Blacks get arrested. When cities hire White cops, the opposite happens (more Black arrests, no more White arrests). It was an amazingly stark result, but I'm not quite sure what the right story is.
jkottke: In the chapter on the effect of abortion on crime rates, you and Stephen take care emphasizing what the data says and the strong views that people in the US hold on the issue of abortion. Still, if someone wants to twist your observations into something like "abortion is good because it lowers crime", it's not that difficult. Have your observations in this area caused any problems for you? Any extreme reactions?
Levitt: I have gotten a whole lot of hate mail on the abortion issue (as much from the left as from the right, amazingly). What I try to tell anyone who will listen -- few people will listen when the subject is abortion -- is that our findings on abortion and crime have almost nothing to say about public policy on abortion. If abortion is murder as pro-life advocates say, then a few thousand less homicides is nothing compared to abortion itself. If a woman's right to choose is sacrosanct, then utilitarian arguments are inconsequential. Mainly, I think the results on abortion imply that we should do the best we can to try to make sure kids who are born are wanted and loved. And it turns out that is something just about everyone can agree on.
jkottke: In the book, you say "a slight tweak [in incentives] can produce drastic and unforseen results". If you were the omnipotent leader of the US for a short time, what little tweak might you make to our political, cultural, or economic frameworks to make America better (if you can forgive the subjectivity of that word)?
Levitt: I would start by increasing the IRS budget ten-fold and doing a lot more tax audits. If everyone paid their taxes, tax rates could be much lower and otherwise honest people wouldn't be tempted to cheat. For some reason, everyone hates the idea. But we can't all be cheating more than average on our taxes. I think it would be for the better. And after I got done with that, I'd legalize sports betting, and I would also do away with most of the nonsense and hassle that currently goes into airport security.
jkottke: In the war between the film and music industries and their customers, there's an argument over how much the explosive increase in Internet piracy affects sales of CDs, movie tickets, and DVDs. Using the same data, the music/movie industry argues that sales are down because of piracy (or at least diminished from what they "should" be in a piracy-free marketplace) while the other side argues that sales are up and that piracy may actually have a beneficial effect. The question of "how does piracy affect record/movie sales?" seems well suited to your particular application of economic tools. Have you looked at this question? And if not, do you have sense of which special view of the data might reveal an answer?
Levitt: I have not myself studied the issue. I have a former student who has studied this issue. Alejandro Zentner. He argues that music sales are way down as a consequence of downloading. He uses the availability/price of high-speed internet across areas and relates that to patterns of self-reported music buying.