This book reminds me of reading America's Test Kitchen cooking magazine, Cook's Illustrated. Or watching Alton Brown on tv. Tools, measurements, cause/effect...science applied to explain end results. A lot of work to show something simple. Pot roasts are analyzed to determine what matters in producing the most tender roast (it's the cut of meat and cooking to reach a certain temperature for a period of time). Or what matters in a child becoming a successful adult (parents' education, parents' socioeconomic status, age of the mother at the time of her first birth, birth weight, parents' ability to speak English, adoption, parents' involvement in the PTA, books in the child's home).
This book is the collaboration of Steven Levitt (economist) and Stephen Dubner (author and journalist). Levitt has the knowledge while Dubner can put it on paper. Early on in the book, three basic beliefs are presented to explain the foundation of the book: "Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life," "the conventional wisdom is often wrong," and "dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes." Combine this with their assertion that "knowing what to measure and how to measure"..."makes a complicated world much less so." Basically they give new answers to questions that we thought we knew the answers to or answers that we thought were impossible to determine.
They also strongly emphasis that they address controversial subjects - and present findings that may cause considerable discomfort or even disgust. Emotions could cause someone to toss aside the book as nonsense. The most obvious example of this is Levitt's rational of abortion being the greatest cause in the reduction of crime in the 90s. But also addressed are less compelling scenarios. Does a real estate agent really have the customer's best interest in mind?
Every day examples are measured to illustrate bigger concerns. For example, the real estate data shows "nothing is more powerful than information." The question "why do drug dealers still live with their moms?" shows where conventional wisdom goes wrong.
For me, it was a thoroughly enjoyable book, a fast read, enlightening, interesting, and easy to understand. The findings did not repel me nor go against my values. I'm also considered a rational, literal person - so this was probably right up my alley. I will be interested to find what some of my friends think (who are emotionally attached to some of these subjects) - if I can get them to read the book.
I think the pair of authors did a great job maintaining a distance from the subjects presented. They don't attach judgments - just clean (some may say cold) data and logical conclusions. Like a scalpel wielded by a surgeon and the loved one of the patient watching - both very different mindsets - it can be horrifying or just the realities of science.
The writing is very accessible and does not get bogged down - an amazing feat considering math is actually used in the discussion. Not being a frequent non-fiction reader, I'm continually surprised when complex information can be shared in a way that makes "learning" fun and understandable and leaves me wanting more.
Although, the direct and short scenarios measured (there really are a lot of them), broken down, and explained flowed quickly and from point to point - it sometimes made me lose sight of the larger topic being discussed. Occasionally I had to go back in the chapter to connect the scenario to the point.
The book also uses many timely references - so the saying "get it while it's hot" definitely applies. And also leaves me hoping for more in the future.
The six major chapters of the book:
1. What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?
2. How Is the Klu Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?
3. Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?
4. Where Have All the Criminals Gone?
5. What Makes a Perfect Parent?
6. Perfect Parents II; or: Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?
Skimming through the book, here are some scenarios broached:
Who gets responses to their online dating ads, how a chicago teacher was busted for cheating on her students' mandatory state tests, how a gang conducts business like a corporation, how the KKK was brought down through a kid's radio program, Guiliani's crime success, who was voted off on the game show Weakest Link, the recent price drop in term life insurance, a bagel seller's profits, the most common names, the Headstart school initiative, and competition between sumo wrestlers.
Quite a large playing field. Which is exactly why the book is fun and unintimidating. No subject is beat to death. If you enjoying reading about curious subjects this book is great. Quickly skipping from here to there, this book keeps you interested.
On an interview on The Daily Show, Levitt admitted this book makes some people walk away sad. Things are the way they are. And what we might have thought things "are" aren't. Life might seem futile when presented in raw data. Repeated a couple times in the book, "Morality represents the way that people would like the world to work--whereas economics represents how it actually does work." So if you like to think you have things all figured out and under control, this book could be a bit upsetting. Or, as is my case, you could read the book and think "hmmm...that's interesting. Tell me more." And then think of a million questions you wish Levitt will answer in future books.