It is the summer of 2003. Europe is sweltering under the worst heatwave for 500 years as Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland all vote to join the European Union. In the US, it is less than six months since US forces invaded Iraq and liberated Baghdad, as intellectual fights rage as to the validity of this action. In the midst of all this, writer and journalist Stephen J. Dubner is asked by the New York Times to go and interview a man who is causing quite a stir in the world of Economics. So, he goes to Chicago, and for the first time meets Steven D. Levitt.
These were the days when social media meant MySpace and Friendster plus very little else: Skype had only just launched and no-one had even heard of Twitter or Facebook. Podcasting only began in this year: if you had an original idea to expound, there was literally nowhere to go other than magazines or newspapers for any radical thinker to find an audience who might be interested. In the case of Levitt, he’d already made a name for himself proposing fairly unconventional theories in a very conventional discipline.
His latest work, ‘The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime’ had aroused interest after publication in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Levitt argued that a crime wave that had swept the US in the 1990’s had not been arrested by any of the means by which politicians, commentators or indeed sociologists had stated were responsible. In fact, the rapid drop in teenage perpetrators was a direct result of the landmark Roe v Wade legal case in 1971 which legalised abortion and effectively prevented a very specific demographic of potential criminals from ever existing.
This assertion was, understandably, met with a fair deal of academic scepticism (which continued for many years after publication) but Levitt’s work was based not only in fact, but considerable background research. Here was a man who looked at Economics not simply as a series of empirical concepts, but was acutely aware of the interconnectivity of other World events in relation to basic economic theory. Dubner, very much the epitome of the street-smart New Yorker, saw potential for the two of them, but it was his literary agent who can be credited with the inspired notion of getting the pair to write a book.
Freakonomics was published in 2005, the same year as a blog of the same name was launched. The latter tapped into an important, emerging means to capitalise on a new and previously unexplored group of critical thinkers riding a wave of Internet freedom. William Morrow and Company, who distributed the book in the US, sent 100 ‘preview’ copies to specialist bloggers in the hope they’d give favourable reviews. Many people subsequently credit the initial success of publication to the influence of the ‘blogosphere’: as of late 2009 (according to Wikipedia) the book had sold over 4 million copies worldwide. Then came a number of (probably inevitable) challenges to the original concepts covered in the book, a 2006 defamation case, which forced a revised version of the original manuscript to be published in the same year.
The success of the Freakonomics brand wasn’t just in the hands of independent internet writers or thanks to publicity over legal challenges: 2007 saw the blog become so popular it was absorbed by the New York Times, who continued to host it until 2011. By then there’d been a second book, documentary film made about the concept and the establishment of a podcast, Freakonomics Radio. However, more significant was the foundation in 2009 of the Freakonomics Consulting Group, soon changed to The Greater Good or TGG. With a number of Nobel laureates, this rapidly emerging commercial juggernaut attempting to maintain largely ethical status made perfect sense.
In a decade plus, Freakonomics has become big business, the epitome of Internet Brand Awareness. There’s now four books, a bi-weekly podcast and, if you have the cash, the original instigators of the lifestyle are available to come speak at your event. Their publicity blurb joyfully celebrates 600k followers on Twitter and a now fully independent blog that receives two million hits a month. This duo effecively and smartly rode the wave of emerging social networks and established the concept of out of the box thinking as a buzz-phrase for a generation.
However, there are critics, especially when it comes to their assessment of certain subjects (climate change most notably) combined with this peculiar deconstruction of what an American academic can do with enough disparate data to work from. Their joint success has generated the kind of grumpy annoyance that inevitable follows anyone who’s able to be hugely successful at the task in hand: there are imitators of Levitt and Dubner’s partnership all over the World, inevitably including those who resent not having had the ‘idea’ first.
However, this pair have effectively redefined an area of academia, giving the -onomics suffix an entirely new lease of life, and allowing people like me to believe that there is more to explaining why the World works as it does than simply spouting statistics and claiming academic superiority. In fact, I’d not be here today with a Patreon were it not for the belief that acceptable explanations do not simply have to involve one discipline’s set of particulars and no others. Allowing disciplines to overlap and merge, reading data from multiple (and often unexpected) sources means that literature has much to thank science for, history can look to economics to help explain actions… it may be considered by some as homogenisation, but it is a logical reaction to the means by which we now both absorb and react to the vast amount of (often contrary) stimuli available.
Looking for the unexpected answer to a question often allows us the ability to grasp the larger, more fundamental principles at play. In the introduction to Freakonomics, the perfect example of this is the US ‘real estate’ agent who you’d like to sell your house… but does she have your best interests at heart? Not according to the data, say Levitt and Dubner. If you look at the behaviour of Real Estate agents when selling their own houses, they’ll always try and angle for more money themselves, whilst looking for clients to take the first good deal that comes along.
What this pair are asking their readers to do is not necessarily agree with their principles, or indeed subscribe to this way of thinking. They are providing a valid alternative to what is presented as ‘conventional’ thinking. The definition of our individual truth, undoubtedly, is a complex combination of many factors. Sometimes, it is apparent that groups of people aren’t necessarily interested in the scientific facts presented. What they crave is their own, personal comfort away from actual reality.
If you want a perfect example of this in action, spend a moment reading around the subject of clean eating which has rapidly and significantly altered both what we consume and what is considered as healthy in the last decade. This movement owes more than a little to internet evangelicals: often women who have sought to transform themselves, creating a particular lifestyle of foods and detoxes before selling the concept to others via platforms such as Instagram. In many cases, conventional wisdom and scientific fact has been completely ignored in preference to ‘feeling good’ regardless of how this actually takes place.
However, in the last few years, academics and others have been at pains to debunk the transformative properties of certain foods, and that in many cases prolonged exposure can cause long term harm. Many cite this as yet another example of a ‘post truth’ environment many people now choose to inhabit. They would rather be wrong and happy than right and miserable. With the current state of world news right now, it really is not difficult to grasp the appeal.
The truth for most of us should be a combination of acquired knowledge, influence and personal consideration: looking outside what has been your accepted norm and thinking differently is never a bad thing. Challenging what is presented as fact is, after all, never a bad thing. What is increasingly apparent is that the real truth can not only be painful, but potentially damaging to people who refuse to accept that science and mathematics can only be ignored for so long.
Freakonomics challenges us to look at the World in a different way. It uses often disparate facts and examples to present a reality where everything truly is interconnected with everything else. Science’s constant reassessment of the Universe is now showing this to true on a molecular level, with rapid advances pointing the way towards a number of major re-examinations of matter, existence and even the history of mankind itself. As our very perception of reality is both reassessed and altered, it is time to look to the ordinary in order to find answers we can grasp on a personal level.
Now you appreciate the concept, it is time to examine evidence…