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May 15, 2014 4:22 pm
Think Like a Freak, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Allen Lane, RRP£12.99/William Morrow $28.99, 288 pages
Ten years ago Steven Levitt was not the kind of person anyone would have likened to Hunter S Thompson, inventor of the “gonzo” style of journalism. In his mid-thirties Thompson travelled to Nevada on assignment and, fuelled by stupefying quantities of drugs and alcohol, embarked on a series of misadventures that would be loosely chronicled in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). Levitt, by contrast, spent two years at a management consultancy called Corporate Decisions, aside from which he has been studying or teaching economics at elite universities all his adult life.
But in some ways the comparison is apt: Levitt’s 2005 book Freakonomics, co-authored with the journalist Stephen Dubner, did for economics what Fear and Loathing had done for reportage three decades earlier. It was among the first works of what you might call gonzo social science. Instead of presenting his findings in the most objective possible light, Levitt injected himself into the story wearing the colours of an iconoclast. Naturally, there were no louche excursions; what made him a renegade was his unorthodox way of “marrying the economic approach to a rogue, freakish curiosity”. But then, each generation has its own rebellion.
Freakonomics taught us (among other things) that sumo wrestlers cheat, teachers rig exams and drug dealers are penniless mummy’s boys. Such disparate conclusions could be dismissed as miscellaneous trivia, but what impressed admirers was not so much the weight of the discoveries as the techniques by which they were unearthed. Levitt incants two guiding principles: incentives matter; and numbers do not lie. Read the motives forced on people by a given situation, and you can figure out how the unscrupulous will behave. Read the data left behind and you will find traces of their transgressions like footprints in snow.
This story – of an underdog who outsmarts conventional wisdom by sniffing the ground while others eye the heavens – was also the theme of a sequel, SuperFreakonomics (2009). There were those who objected that Levitt’s illations were neither as unexpected nor as incontestable as he made out, and that the schtick was a tad contrived. But when an amiable narrator spins a fabulous yarn, it seems churlish to complain.
Think Like a Freak, the latest iteration of the franchise, belongs to a category much older than the one its authors pioneered: it is a self-help manual. There are some good ideas here, expressed with panache. Executives should test new ways of doing business even when this means breaking with established routines. Politicians should not allow moral convictions to blind them to inconvenient facts. All of us should stop doing things we only pretend to enjoy. And when bad decisions make us miserable, we should be ready to quit.
But the book also contains a few platitudes, among them the dictum that “if you ask the wrong question, you are almost guaranteed to get the wrong answer”. Occasionally, it is maddening. In SuperFreakonomics, we learnt of the authors’ efforts to scour banking data for signs of terrorist activity. One conclusion was that jihadis should buy life insurance to throw their algorithm off the scent. Now this is revealed as a double bluff, designed to ensnare would-be suicide bombers. We can only guess whether this worked, and whether we should take their new advice any more seriously.
Then there is the question of credentials. Levitt’s research has won plaudits and stirred debate but, so far as one can glean from his books, it has had little direct influence on government or business. We cannot know whether his mantra would have worked so well had he chosen a different field. Every guru knows that self-improvement begins with ambition. The trouble is that thinking like a freak – or, to put it plainly, trying to emulate Levitt’s lustrous success – is probably not a sensible goal.
Mark Vandevelde is the FT’s executive comment editor
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner will be in conversation with Tim Harford at London’s Cadogan Hall on May 27. ft.com/ftweekendinterview
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