In a New Yorker book review this week, Elizabeth Kolbert tears Levitt and Dubner a new one over the geoengineering chapter of SuperFreakonomics, calling the pair's thinking on the issue "horseshit".
Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it's noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries' worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years.
Freakonomists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner probably got the ball rolling back in 2006 with their article about how people get really good at something. Malcolm Gladwell threw his hat into the ring with Outliers and the 10,000-Hour Rule. More recently, David Brooks stepped up to the plate and delivered a review of two recent books on how genius is made, not born: Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated. I even stuck my oar in briefly; the deliberate practice concept fascinates me, tangentially related as it is to relaxed concentration. From Brooks' article:
The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It's not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it's deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.
Athletes have long been ridiculed for the cliches they use when talking about how they won, particularly during post-game interviews. You know them by heart:
We just have to keep working hard.
It just comes down to staying focused.
We gave it 110% tonight.
We worked hard in practice all week.
We never gave up.
If the writers above (and the researchers their writings are based on) are correct, maybe the jocks have it right: it all comes down to preparation, working harder, and wanting it more than the other guy. Simple...except for that pesky 10,000 hours thing.
Very interesting paper on the economics of prostitution by Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh.
The transaction-level data we collected suggests that street prostitution yields an average wage of $27 per hour. Given the relatively limited hours that active prostitutes work, this generates less than $20,000 annually for a women working year round in prostitution. While the wage of a prostitute is four times greater than the non-prostitution earnings these women report (approximately $7 per hour), there are tremendous risks associated with life as a prostitute. According to our estimates, a woman working as a prostitute would expect an annual average of a dozen incidents of violence and 300 instances of unprotected sex.
The authors also noted that a prostitute was "more likely to have sex with a police officer than to get officially arrested by one". (via marginal revolution)
From the abstract of a new paper on the influence of the Ku Klux Klan by Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt:
Surprisingly, we find few tangible social or political impacts of the Klan. There is little evidence that the Klan had an effect on black or foreign born residential mobility, or on lynching patterns. Historians have argued that the Klan was successful in getting candidates they favored elected. Statistical analysis, however, suggests that any direct impact of the Klan was likely to be small. Furthermore, those who were elected had little discernible effect on legislation passed.
The full paper is available on Fryer's web site. (via mr)
The Stev(ph)ens Dubner and Levitt report on some recent research suggesting that people who are good at things got good at them primarily through practice and not because of innate talent.
Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers -- whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming -- are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of cliches that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular cliches just happen to be true.
The talent myth described here seems to be distinct from that which Malcolm Gladwell talks about in relation to talented people and companies, but I'm sure parallels could be drawn. But back to the original article...I was particularly taken with the concept of "deliberate practice":
Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task -- playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.
"Deliberate practice" reminds me of a video game a bunch of my friends are currently hooked on called Brain Age. Available for the handheld Nintendo DS, Brain Age is based on a Japanese brain training "game" developed by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. The game measures the "age" of your brain based on your performance of simple tasks like memorizing a list of words or addition of small numbers. As you practice (deliberately), you get faster and more skilled at solving these mini-games and your brain age approaches that of a smarty-pants, twitchy-fingered teenager.
Speaking of talented teenagers, this week's New Yorker contains an article (not online) on Ivan Lendl's golfing daughters. In it, Lendl agrees that talent is created, not born:
"Can you create athletes, or do they just happen?" [Lendl] asked me not long ago. "I think you can create them, and I think that Tiger Woods's father proved that. People will sometimes ask me, 'How much talent did you have in tennis?' I say, 'Well, how do you measure talent?' Yeah, sure, McEnroe had more feel for the ball. But I knew how to work, and I worked harder than he did. Is that a talent in itself? I think it is."
Translation: there's more than one way to be good at something. There's something very encouraging and American about it, this idea that through hard work, you can become proficient and talented at pretty much anything.
Two years ago, Stephen Dubner wrote an article for the NY Times Magazine on Steven Levitt, an economist with a knack for tackling odd sorts of problems. Last year, Dubner and Levitt collaborated on an article called What the Bagel Man Saw about the economic lessons gleaned from a man who's been successfully selling bagels on the honor system in offices for more than 20 years. Now Levitt and Dubner are out with a new book called Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Nearly Everything, an overview of Levitt's work and collaborations with other economists.
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.
But on the other hand, I have a good friend Koleman Strumpf who has also written on this and comes to the opposite conclusion using a whole bunch of clever arguments.
This is a great issue - an important one and a tough one. Having studied both of these papers, I don't know which one to believe.
Thanks, Steven. For more information on Freakonomics, check out the book's web site -- which includes a weblog written, in part, by the authors -- or buy the book on Amazon. Check out also this email conversation between Levitt and Steve Sailer on the connection between legalized abortion and reduced crime in the 1990s, a short profile in Wired, and this profile in Esquire (free subscription required).
Update: Here's a Freakonomics excerpt from Slate on how distinctively black or white names affect a child's course in life.