It is a truly brave commentator who’d consider comparing the Ku Klux Klan with a bunch of Estate Agents, but that is exactly what Levitt and Dubner decide to do in Chapter 2 of Freakonomics. This section of the 2005 book is particularly apposite in light of current events, with the alt-right very much front and centre in public consciousness. To understand why this juxtaposition works as well as it does, one must grasp a number of underpinning principles, the most significant of which is causality. This is how selling houses can be connected to lynch mobs without breaking stride: more significantly understanding the principle breaks down a lot of the mystery around what truly goes on in our World.
All of us are familiar with the concept of ‘things happen for a reason’ but the practicalities often depend on how much we think about these things to begin with. It is a basic human reaction to consider what is presented at face value when thrown into unfamiliar situations: two cars hit each other on a busy street, and the relative physical positioning of one to the other will allow us to make certain assumptions over the circumstances by which the accident occurred. However, only by digging deeper does the true nature of these series of events become apparent: who is to blame is often far more difficult to discern than at first appears.
The key to causality is grasping that more than one event can be responsible for an action: a man arrives in A&E with chest pains after our accident in the previous paragraph, and the assumption might be that the impact and pressure of seatbelt across the chest has caused an issue with his heart. However, on discussion with the patient these issues began months ago, without real awareness of cause, and it is only the accident which has highlighted a true risk to his longterm health. Only by making an intuition leap based on the available hospital data does it become apparent that a moment in time has exposed a long term set of relationships between disparate factors.
Once one grasps the fundamentals of causality, it becomes apparent that information also matters a very great deal in our understanding of the World around us:
‘Information is a beacon, a cudgel, an olive branch, a deterrent – all depending on who wields it and how. Information is so powerful that the assumption of information, even if the information does not actually exist, can have a sobering effect.’
Freakonomics, Chapter 2 Page 63.
If all one does in life is assume that what one sees and hears is all there is, there’s a blinkering of so many potential possibilities as to beggar belief. However, on the flip side, one can then easily invent circumstances and possibilities that simply don’t exist, and that is where the science of economics (in Freakonomics’ case) becomes the vital anchor. It doesn’t have to be economics either: history, biology, sociology all have parts to play in illuminating events and connecting the disparate.
In the case of the Ku Klux Clan—it was making private information public knowledge after the Second World war, by giving (of all fictional people) Superman a new force of evil to confront, that helped to contribute to the destruction of the organisation’s mystique. Understanding the market forces estate agents work under and how they use language to create the illusion of a saleable property, by altering information to present a different version of reality… both groups understand the significance of what happens when someone else exposes their ‘theatre’ and shows the truth behind communications used to sell services, or recruit followers.
However, there’s a more potent thread winding these two units together, and that’s fear. Information can be used for many things, after all: if you smoke too much you’re at greater risk of cancer is undoubtedly rooted in scientific fact, but plenty of heavy smokers outlive peers and carry on puffing away to the end. Yes, being overweight may expose you to multiple health risks, but it does not preclude you from physical fitness, or the ability to do anything a ‘thin’ person is capable of. How you use the tools at your disposal (language, information, argument) to either calm or create tension is as significant as the action itself: this transforms the simplest of statements into either a potent threat, or a persuasive admission.
Creating fear to fuel personal belief is corrupting: your way of life is being compromised by immigrants; you should sell the house because tomorrow, that offer may not exist… both play on basic human instinct to create first conflict, and then offer an obvious and easily provided resolution. They might seem a world apart, but causality tells us how much a roof over our heads matters. We grasp why xenophobia is a potent weapon simply by looking at current world events, and why keeping home safe matters, not simply because if there’s a Hurricane tomorrow everything could be taken away regardless. Challenging individuals by threatening what they stand for and what has allowed them to be happy will result more often than not in a predictable reaction. People can become incredibly susceptible to suggestion, if a canny orator knows the buttons to press.
It is why charismatic individuals such as Donald Trump can become President of the United States: many of you will undoubtedly call issue with the use of ‘charismatic’ in that last sentence, but for others that is what they see. It is the veneer of successful business, of a man who is happy to sacrifice his own desires and ambition (with the exception of golf) to, as he reminds us almost daily, ‘Make America Great Again.’ This is no different to the estate agent’s well-worn sales patter, after all. Trump’s allure to the alt-right comes with more complex baggage however, but they know full well the benefit of snaring the support of disaffected or unhappy white men and women who are also registered voters. In that regard at least, everyone can see how causality allowed the events of the 2016 Election to play out, even if many still fail to grasp the result as valid.
The reason why I urge people to consider Freakonomics as an important part of their cognitive arsenal begins with the acknowledgement of causality’s importance. It can take many years to understand the complexities of modern life, and I doubt there’s anyone who’d view themselves an expert, but these philosophical concepts begin to allow the individual a measure of freedom and autonomy. We may all feel helpless and trapped, but individual acts of rebellion can and do add up over time. Causality matters far more than many people might realise.
It is not simply the understanding of interrelation that is important: ideas such as metaphysics (which examines the fundamental nature of reality) are going to become increasingly significant as science itself reveals more to the Universe than has currently been visible via the naked eye. We will consider the significance of mathematics in the modern world in next week’s essay but for now, Freakonomics asks a basic question of any reader: how much information are you prepared to accept as possible explanation?
With the prevalence of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ in current society, it is becoming increasingly apparent that individuals would often simply pretend something is right if it allows them a measure of emotional security, even if that is not the case. Watching compassion fatigue on social media after months of disparate economic, political and environmental disaster is a reminder that after a while, everybody just stops caring and gives up wanting change. However, if more of us were able to escape the oppressive gravity of information overload, see beyond what is presented to us at face value, many circumstances could and would affect real progress.
In the case of the increase of natural disasters that are inevitable as a consequence of global warming, proactive donations to charities and organisations ought to become de rigeur, not money after the fact. Increased production of pointless material goods should be tempered against the economic impact of their manufacture. Refusing to listen to contrary viewpoints, turning your social media into an echo chamber should be balanced against allowing companies more and more personal data so they can sell items to you that really aren’t necessary.
Picking and choosing what to listen to and believe matter, but so does ignoring bigger pictures for the sake of a quiet life. The next part of the century will put personal security and information freedom front and centre, and at the heart of it all will remain the individual. There has never been a better time to learn, and to educate yourself on how the World is never as black and white as it might appear. Correlation is not causality, however, and that may be the most important lesson to take from the entire Freakonomics concept.
The only true means by which one is able to understand complexities around us comes from embracing the facts: often it can take time and effort to find them, or uncover the real truths behind circumstance. A solid grounding in scientific principle (whether they be pure, applied or social) is the best foundation anyone will find to truly understand our planet and the people on it. Freakonomics simply takes the building blocks of an accepted world, pulls them apart, then rebuilds the structures in another way. It is a life skill we can all learn from, with considerable and positive consequences long term.