November 2, 2005

The argument against Freakonomics

I REALLY THOUGHT whoops, caps lock.

I really thought I was going to like Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics. Any book which is primarily concerned with looking at things in new ways, and is also focused on race in America, I figured I'd love unconditionally. But I didn't. I did thoroughly enjoy it, and it's a very quick and easy read (funny that with a book, that's a positive attribute; no one ever says, yeah you should see this movie, it's only 64 minutes long). And yes, I do highly recommend the book, etc. That said, I'll now spend a few paragraphs issuing some complaints.

First off, I had no problems at all with the first half of the book. But somehow as I got deeper into it, alarms started going off in my head--to the point where I actually jotted down some thoughts as I read. Here's what I wrote:

No matter how many factors you control for in a regression analysis, there are plenty more out there. Factors have factors, and those factors have factors. Much of the conventional wisdom that the book proves wrong was in fact drawn from some of the same methods used in Freakonomics itself. The book has the benefit of hindsight to say that ten years ago we were wrong about this--but in ten years, what will the next experts have to say about the conclusions drawn in Freakonomics? I'm not sold that Freakonomics has the end-all-be-all answers to all of the questions it raises. Yet, possibly because it's designed to be a bestseller, it presents its findings as if they were ultimate truths.

Of course this is sort of par for the course when it comes to experts in any field drawing conclusions about anything--knowledge expands as time passes. After all, the concept of Evolution is only a hundred and fifty years old. And Intelligent Design is brand-spanking new! Well. That's kind of the opposite of knowledge growing. But regardless, here were some specific complaints I had:

pp. 120: The Stev(ph)ens point out that kids who went to Head Start don't do any better when they start regular school than kids (presumably of equal income and social standing) who didn't. They rightly point out that Head Start has been "repeatedly proved ineffectual."

Instead of spending the day with his own undereducated, overworked mother, the typical Head Start child spends the day with someone else's undereducated, overworked mother.

Okay. But doesn't the child's own mother (who has a statistically high chance of being a single mom) benefit from Head Start by being able to go to work during the day, thus putting food on the table? And isn't that (food) kind of important? Maybe that's not one of the goals of Head Start, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the numbers show that mothers with kids in Head Start have no more income than mothers who don't. Not being an economist or researcher of any kind, I can only speculate. But this is the part where I draw on my own experience as a once-upon-a-time Head Start volunteer (full disclosure: the Head Start program was my choice, but my school at the time required volunteer work). First off, I'm not sure that you would really retain anything you learn at that age--much less ten years later--and so the benefits of the actual education the children received in Head Start are questionable. But I think, or at least I hope (and this could be me just being a liberal idealist, which is at least infinitely better than a conservative idealist), that the program has other benefits, social or otherwise, which aren't easily measurable by available numbers. Regarding the program I spent time with, one of these benefits was that the kids were safe and productive for the whole day, and that's worth something.

pp. 172: TV-watching. If you're gonna say it's not bad for children, please, at least say something about other potential drawbacks of the pacifying device, whether it be potentially shortened attention-spans, the promotion of consumer lust in youngsters, or just the general proliferation of fatass chip-eating kids in our country.

I'd also like to note--and I have no real knowledge of this, other than the fact that my father is an economist by training and he told me so--that the University of Chicago Economics program (where Levitt is tenured) is historically conservative, infamously so (see the wikipedia entry here). I'm not suggesting that Levitt is conservative--anyone who points out the positive consequences of the legalization of abortion is not likely to be--but I thought it was an interesting connection to point out, to pretend that I have knowledge of such things. I bring this up because one of the things about the book that got on my nerves is the way that various metrics of so-called success--classroom performance, amount of money made later in life--are assumed to be indicative of things like natural intelligence and genuine ability. Certainly there is somewhat of a correlation, but potential squandered by unfortunate life circumstances or events is not measurable by any set of numbers. It would have been nice to look into the phenomenon of rich dumbasses and poor geniuses.

Freakonomics is certainly funny, and I do think it's a "good" thing that it's popular--like I said before, I do recommend it, and that's a pretty huge deal, since my recommendation alone is known to move precisely zero-thousand-and-none units. In the end, it's a great read, it'll make you think (do we need to be "made" to think?), and it's certainly worthy of the praise it's received. I just had a few reservations.

I had absolutely no reservations, however, about laughing uncontrollably upon finding out in the name-analysis portion of the book that a family had legally named their kid "shithead."

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"But I think, or at least I hope (and this could be me just being a liberal idealist, which is at least infinitely better than a conservative idealist), that the program has other benefits, social or otherwise, which aren’t easily measurable by available numbers. "

It could be a sunken cost that does not have other benefits. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-Head Start. My dad ran Head Start programs. But just because it exists doesn't mean it "must" have other benefits.

February 29, 2012 at 11:35AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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