Sunday, October 9, 2005

My Freakonomics Encounter

This weekend I had the opportunity to chat with Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and co-author/subject of the best-selling book Freakonomics. Levitt is famous for finding unexpected answers to real-world questions via quantitative analyses. For example, which is more dangerous to a child: a household with a gun or a household with a swimming pool? (Answer: When Levitt looked at cause-of-death data for children in the United States, he found that swimming-pool-related deaths were roughly 100 times more prevalent than gunplay-related deaths.)

If such nuggets interest you, you’ll love Freakonomics. His co-author Stephen Dubner does for Levitt what Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, did for baseball’s sabermetricians and quants, bringing the numbers to life with well-told stories.

That said, the in-person version of Levitt was remarkably similar to the voice of the book. He’s not an ivory-tower type that Dubner had to decode for the world. If fact he comes across as instinctively interesting. By that I mean his research seems motivated entirely by what intrigues him personally, but when he talks about it, you can’t help wanting to follow along: Is sumo wrestling rigged? Do real estate agents act in your best interest? Is the 1990s’ drop in crime related to the legalization of abortion twenty years earlier?

Levitt tends to focus on societal questions, but those of us in business analytics should thank him. Through Freakonomics, he is getting ordinary people interested in the value of using data and analytics to understand problems. Given that the alternatives—conventional wisdom, intuition, and “common sense”—are much easier for people to relate to, this is progress.

A few other Levitt resources for those interested:

  • Freakonomics Blog — Levitt and Dubner keep the freak-out going, including pointers to their pieces that appear in The New York Times.
  • Levitt’s Papers — For those accustomed to academic papers and college-level math, you’ll find Levitt an unusually clear writer. Also, the economics part of his work is more prominent here than in Freakonomics. I particularly liked the empirical analysis of gambling in the National Football League.
  • Treating HIV Doesn’t Pay — Levitt mentioned this research about AIDS in Africa by Emily Oster. She used a Freakonomics-style analysis that generated surprising conclusions about the most effective way to minimize loss of life, given the fixed amount of money available. It may make disquieting reading, but there’s no question it matters.

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