Skip to main content

Think Like a Freak – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner ***

I loved Freakonomics and its sequel, so was expecting more of the same here, but Think Like a Freak is a very different book and suffers by comparison. (To be honest it doesn’t belong on this site as it is far less of a popular maths book than the other two, but I’ve kept it in for consistency.)
The thing that absolutely blew everyone away with the earlier books was the absolute string of superb eye-opening stories, taking a sideways look at a problem using statistics and psychology (it wasn’t really economics, but it worked as a title). Perhaps the definitive example was the idea that crime rates had fallen as a result of increased availability of abortions some years earlier. In this book, though, theFreakonomics authors set out to teach us their methodology and, by comparison it’s a bit dull.
What we get is often ittle more than a collection of management consultancy platitudes like ‘thinking small is powerful’ and ‘it’s good to quit’, because in the end the special thing about the Freakonomics approach was not the basic tools, which are two a penny, but the way the authors employed them. Occasionally we do get a great little story – I particularly love the exploration of how to do better in football penalty shootouts – but there just aren’t enough of them, specifically not enough really surprising, ‘Wow!’ stories like the ones that fill the previous books. The authors really should have taken their own advice when they say the most powerful form of persuasion they know is to use stories. We need more great stories, guys!
I would also pick up on another point they made. When talking about the benefits of quitting (where appropriate) they say ‘Should we take our own advice and think about  quitting? After three Freakonomics books, can we possibly have more to say – and will anyone care?’ The answer is yes, and no. ‘Yes’, quit doing this kind of book – but ‘no’ don’t give up and write us another Freakonomics if you can, as we will be ready to lap up more of those mind-bending ideas.

Hardback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,