'The Freakoseries' | Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
To a bored economics major like me, Freakonomics, Superfreakonomics, Think Like a Freak, and When to Rob a Bank were a gulp of fresh air—bracing, slightly giddying and undeniably promising. Chief among the many gifts that these books so generously bestowed upon their reader was a feeling of virtual omnipotence. The implicit message was as clear as day—creative use of econometric tricks and other scientific shenanigans will open up a new world in front of you. Equipped with the x-ray goggles of statistics, you will find that in seemingly the most boring subjects there’s a vast expanse of enthralling facts and hidden connections to be discovered.
But like any gulp of air in our highly polluted environment, these books came with a share of mild contaminants, traces of toxic gases and, if subjected to rigorous testing, a few stray particles of bovine fecal matter. My humble professional impression was that in a noble attempt to remain absolutely objective and get feelings and emotions out of the way, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner may have missed something profoundly human. While difficult to quantify, broader historical, institutional and systemic social context should find its way into regression analysis. At times, I felt that the subjects of race and gender may not have been approached nearly as carefully and thoughtfully as they should have been.
The Freakoseries also didn’t escape the trap familiar to every economist—the law of diminishing returns. The overall downward trend was patently noticeable, and discoveries that were truly eye-opening and revelatory were harder and harder to come by in every next book. Or, to be more precise, sensationalist and borderline outrageous subject matter gave way to more scientifically conservative material.
To recap, there’s a madness to Levitt and Dubner’s method—some of it unwarranted, but mostly truly inspiring. They were able to inject a healthy dose of fun and joy into scientific research and popularize it like no one before them ever could. It's a feat for which every layperson as well as a generation of professors and students should be profoundly grateful.