Skip to main content

Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen L. Dubner *****

It has to be said that this book is little short of brilliant. Levitt, with the assistance of writer Dubner, turns a series of interesting statistics into a real page turner. (Which is why it’s here, despite being sometimes classified as a kind of business book.)
The way they do it is partly by taking statistics we’re really interested in – crime, education, all the things that push the button – and partially by be rigorous about the statistics, rather than the typical sloppy interpretative stuff we see every day on the TV news or coming from “experts” who might know their field but no nothing about statistics.
A great (and inevitably controversial) example is the big reduction in crime in the US from around 1990. Levitt shows how the usual suspects from increased police numbers to gun control may have had effects, but could not be responsible for this fall. Instead, he suggests and very convincingly demonstrates, it is due to the reduction in birth rate amongst poor and disadvantaged families a generation earlier due to a change in the law. It was the reduction in the likely potential criminal pool that had the biggest impact. It’s fascinating (and not all on such heavy subjects either). Everything from teachers cheating their children’s test results to real estate agents’ tricks come under the Levitt scrutiny.
Just a couple of small negative points. One is the use of the words “economics” and “economist” throughout the book. Levitt is an economist, but very little of what’s in the book is economics. It’s mostly statistics with a healthy chunk of operational research (that’s operations research in the US) thrown in. Just because economists use statistics (and probably get paid more than statisticians) doesn’t magically turn statistics into economics. It’s just plain wrong.
The other small problem is over an example of Levitt doing what he accuses “experts” of doing – stating something with confidence, but without the evidence to back it up. He tells us we’re fooling ourselves in being more afraid of flying than driving, because the “per hour” death rate of driving versus flying is equal. I’ve two problems with this. One is I think people are more interested in the per trip death rate than the per hour rate (i.e. “will I survive this journey?”) As car journeys are usually shorter in duration than plane journeys, his like-for-like comparison falls down. I did this calculation for my own book, The Complete Flyer’s Handbook and (based on UK rather US data) you were ten times more likely to be in a fatal air crash on any particular journey than you were of being in a fatal road crash (though it was a one in a million chance on the air crash, so not very likely).
Oh and I found the pages quoting newspapers on how wonderful Levitt it is that interleave each chapter rather irritating.
But none of these little negative should put you off from what is justifiably already a classic and a worthy bestseller. It’s entertaining, it’s informing, it makes you think and it will inspire you to consider what properly used statistics can do for your enterprise. Great stuff.

Paperback 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …