Sunday, February 18, 2018

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Just a random walk through the woods while in Florida.

I have a good friend, Karen, who co-teaches a Bible study for children with me.  When we first met she was just glowing in her evaluation of my knowledge and insight into the Bible.

"Sharon, you are so wise and smart! I just marvel at your ability to get these teenagers to break down and analyze Scripture.  Your lessons just drive to the essence of the message."

Needless to say, my head swelled to the point I could hardly balance it on my shoulders.

After knowing her for a while it finally occurred to me to learn a  little more about her.

"Karen, what did you do?"

"Oh, I'm a homeschooling mom.  I raised my six kids and now it's just Jeff and me."

"How did you meet your husband?"

"At college."

"Where was that?"

"Carnegie Mellon."

"Oh.  What was your major?  Art?"

"Mechanical Engineering."

"Huh.  But you homeschooled and never worked?"

"Oh I worked while my husband was in Medical School.  That was before we had kids."

"What did you do?"

"I developed software for NASA."

So repeat, "Sharon, you're so smart; you're so insightful" in a childish, whiny voice like your mimicking your mom after she told you to clean your room.

I am rather proud and flattered (with my now fully shrunk head) to have Karen as a teaching partner and friend.  We have lately begun to write each other long e mails, even though we see each other every week.  I have so enjoyed it.  It takes me back to the time when I used to write letters to friends.  On paper, sent through the mail.  Remember those days?

I am also sorry to say that she might be a better writer than me. But, seeing my weakness in the ego department, God has probably put her in my life to keep me humble.

Speaking of geniuses (not me, my friend) here is Glenn Gould performing the Toccata for Clavier in E minor.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Freakonomics, #1)Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am always skeptical of explanations based on hard numbers. Statistics do lie as any one in a career that has anything to do with numbers, averages, and odds would know.

Nevertheless, I found this book to be a worthy read. For one, it was quick. I read it in three sittings.

Of course, in order to sell a book you have to go against the grain of popular or conventional attitudes about a subject, otherwise you wouldn't sell your book. But again, you better provide a convincing argument or at least know how to manipulate words so it sounds as though you are supporting your unique slant on subjects that have been taken for granted by the general populace.

This is what the authors, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner attempt to do. By that I mean that sometimes they support their assertions and sometimes they never get around to really backing up their claims.

The most interesting chapters dealt with cheating teachers, the Ku Kux Klan and drug dealers. In chapter one they discussed how the heavier accountability placed on teachers for the students test scores led to some teachers cheating. There were a variety of ways they could do this- give the answers, help the students along- but the best way to avoid detection was to simply go over the tests and change the students' incorrect answers.

Now the smart teacher did not change every answer or all the students' answers. They are educators, after all, and weren't stupid. But it was suspicious that since the teacher accountability some students with a history of failure were suddenly comparing favorably with their peers. At least for one year. The next year many of them sunk back to their previous level.

Now to suspect a teacher of cheating and proving it are two different things. Correlation does not prove causation as the authors demonstrate throughout the book. The solution was rather involved and I won't attempt to show it here, and anyway, it only resulted in the firing of a handful of teachers, however, it did send a warning call to the rest and the cheating stopped.

The Ku Klux Klan history was very interesting because it showed that their reputation was larger than their actual work of terror, which slowly declined with time. In 1890-1899 there were 1,111 lynchings. This number dwindled until by 1930-1929 there were only 119. For the decade of the sixties there were 3.

One man decided he would rid the country of the Ku Klux Klan and he did it in a surprising way. He ridiculed them. Stetson Kennedy joined the Klan, found out all their secrets then broadcasted them on the radio. All the secret handshakes and crypted messages became common knowledge with children playing good guys, bad guys using the same hand shakes and coded words. No longer were the Klans members a secretive powerful group, but an object of fun, even by their own children. Klan membership plummeted.

Ironically, there has been a resurgence in white supremacy groups as a kind of push-back to the "cry bullying" that wants to make every minority a victim and every white male a villain, but that is a topic for another day.

Another chapter discusses the logistics of drug dealing and gang business. It was fascinating how drug lords ran their business not differently from the hierarchy of Amway. Young kids join the gang and sell the drugs on the streets. They make the least money and run the greatest risk of arrest and death. But if they are successful they can work their way up the ladder until they are a part of the board making an incredible amount of money. The book describes the overhead the Drug Lord pays to his subordinates while keeping most of the money for himself and it's a lot of money.

Of course there are risks involved, such as eventually getting arrested and going to jail for many years, which is what eventually happened to the Drug Lord in this story. The information was accumulated by a Sociology PhD student from the University of Chicago who spent several years with a gang from one of the poorest black neighborhoods in Chicago. His experience is as harrowing as it is engrossing.

The final chapters were on what the statistics have to say about effective parenting. They show hard numbers as to what sort of households had successful children and which kind did not (did a child growing up in a house full of books make a difference? Does Head Start make a difference for underprivileged children? Does staying home during the formative years help?) Not surprisingly, it boils down to parents who are involved in their children's education and those who are not.

An interesting conclusion came from names. Do children with "black" names lack success due to racism? It turns out that a certain demographic names their children certain types of names and it's not the names that provide or steal success but, again, the parents. Apparently there are traceable trends as to what kind of people name their children outlandish names and their correlation to success. Uneducated, people from poor neighborhoods tend to name their children "Rashan" and "Bomquisha" and lest you think that's a color-related issue, white people in trailer parks tend to name their girls "Heavenly" and "Dreamer" and call their boys "Bubba" and "Booger".

While I felt some conclusions were based more on speculation (Since 80% of abortion centers are in poor, black neighborhoods, does abortion really lower the crime rate or the kind of person who would abort their children be the kind to abuse their children and produce a criminal element?) it was still interesting to ponder.

Certainly this book should not be the sole source of any kind of information concerning statistics, but it is certainly a thought-provoking read.

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Cleo said...

I really enjoyed this book as a light read and much of the investigation was thought-provoking. I tried to read their follow-up book though and didn't enjoy it at all. I can't exactly remember why but I think because it ran quite heavily into speculation. In any case, great review and I enjoyed revisiting this book through it!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Cleopatra. This is not a book I would normally read, but my husband and I came across the book in an Antiques store. Josh loves these kinds of books and insisted that I read it. I have had it for over a year and finally read it. You're right it was interesting.

Mudpuddle said...

imo, one of the reasons that GG is such a great interpreter of Bach is that if one listens very carefully, they are able to detect the musical silences as well as the notes... these are what make his phrasing so delicate and moving... i can't listen to too much of it; it's too good... oh, the book; well it sounds okay, i guess, but most likely i won't read it unless i'm stranded somewhere and there's nothing else... tx for the post, anyhow...

Sharon Wilfong said...

HI Mudpuddle. I know what you mean. It had its merit but wasn't the most riveting thing I have read. I like to sprinkle a little non fiction with my literature. :)

Brian Joseph said...

I actually lament the disappearance of a lot of things from the past. But old fashioned letter writing is not one of them. With my handwriting old fashioned letters did not work well for me :)

This book has has been on my radar for awhile. I agree about statistics. They can be very useful, but one must apply common sense, reason and skepticism when looking at data.

I can believe the conclusions about tests and cheating. I am in the private sector. I often see that when goals are raised more people cheat. Many do not cheat, but in order to make the goal they allow other, unmeasured aspects of their work deteriorate.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian. I know what you mean. I am left handed and I tend to write with the letters slanted to the left rather than to the right. My left hand was always black with ink by the end of the day. Also, my thoughts run too fast. Typing is much more efficient.

It is certainly a thought-provoking book. And that is an interesting point you make about goals and cheating. I noticed that in the school district where I taught that people seemed to get around accountability measures.

What happened in our district was the schools with high levels of low performing children would "classify" the majority of their student body as "special needs" which would allow the teachers to give most of their students a modified test and one that was exempt from the overall scoring of the school.

One of our schools even got a "Blue Ribbon" rating because of their high test scores but the fact was that a majority of their students' scores weren't counted because they had been exempt.

Carol said...

I love getting proper letters in the mail, not the ones with the little windows. I presume you get those in your part of the world? (i.e. bills)
And I’m fortunate enough to have at least two friends who continue to write to me even after my neglect in answering them in recent times.
The book sounds interesting. I’m not a numbers person & don’t understand stats but I don’t mind reading something like that if it throws in other bits & pieces. It might just be a book my husband would enjoy though.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Carol. Yes, sadly it seems letter writing is pretty much dead here, except for Christmas cards and even those aren't as plentiful as they once were.

To compare: my parents still send out almost a hundred cards and get that many back. These are from people they have known around the world (they were in the Air Force) as far back as the forties and fifties. Sigh. It's a different generation now.

The only excitement I get from the mail box is when I've ordered a book.

This book is not something I normally read but my husband liked it. I think men are number crunchers. It definitely had interesting parts and overall worth a read.

Ruth @ with freedom and books said...

You're so funny, Sharon!!!!

I have a feeling you are well on your way to becoming that genius w/ the abundant reading of these fascinating topics and titles you choose.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Thanks, Ruth. It is funny, although I was feeling rather stupid at first. You would love Karen. She and her husband turned their entire house (and they doubled the size) into a kid friendly home schooling environment. Even though their kids are grown they have a lot of grand kids and I think they must love visiting grandma and grandpa.