Saturday, October 8, 2016

Think Like a Freak: Secrets of the Rogue Economist

Think Like a Freak: Secrets of the Rogue Economist
I didn’t get around to reading Freakonomics until 2007, but loved it, and immediately read Superfreakonomics, which while also good was less remarkable. It did draw me to the blog, and latterly the podcast which I download and listen to each week. When Dubner and Leavitt (D&L) announced their third book, I was happy to pre-order. (Pretty annoying that we Brits had to wait a whole extra day to get it – in the US it was released at just after midnight on Monday 12 May, it didn’t become available in Britain until the 13th!) That having been said, it downloaded onto my Kindle this morning and I’ve read it cover to cover.

“The plural of anecdote is not data”, the authors remind us, and I suppose that the one criticism I would level at this book is that quite a lot of the characteristics of “Freak” thinkers are based on singular or occasional observations by the authors and their many collaborators/cited sources. While the earlier books focussed mainly on Professor Leavitt’s research into criminal and other rule breaking activities and referenced what were clearly large data sets, that seems to be less the case here. This is a book that is based as much on psychology as it is on economics and statistics, although there is a light sprinkling of economic concepts - sunk costs, opportunity costs, incentives to name just a few.

This book is a manual of sorts to help thinking about the way that the authors do. There is a slight feel of a self-help book, but with such laid back authors, there’s no feeling of being presented with an insurmountable challenge – the first bit of advice to help you “Think like a Freak” is to admit you don’t know, and the last is to quit if you want to – it might make you happier. Other advice includes “ask a different question”, “find the root of the problem”, “have fun”, “treat people decently”, but D&L do come at these from “a different angle” (another of their recommendations) so while listed here these may seem obvious or commonplace, it doesn’t read that way. Some other exhortations – like “Teach Your Garden to Weed Itself” are certainly more original. There are plenty of references to economics and statistics –to name but a few – but less so than in the two earlier books.

On a technical level, the book is makes excellent use of ebook technology. The links to the extensive notes (about 40 pages out of 255 of so) were the easiest to access and get back from that I can recollect in a Kindle book. (The link to a web-site was less rewarding – not something Kindles deliver very well – but would probably work better on a tablet). The book had been excellently edited too, although just one query: surely Dave Le Roth would have trashed the dressing room if there were brown M&M’s (p214)?

This is an interesting book, it’s funny in parts, and I recommend it. Whether it will actually help people think in different ways is another question, but then that is just the same problem as with most regular self-help books. I may have been slightly under-awed as it became clear, as I read through the book, that much of the material had already been used in their excellent podcast, and if you haven’t been following that it’ll probably seem much more original.

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