In college and for some years afterward, I was a card-carrying Liberal. I championed the poor and disenfranchised, and automatically mistrusted capitalism, the government, and anyone powerful. I didn’t necessarily have a lot of facts about the world at my disposal (despite—or because of—being a recent college graduate), but my dogma of rallying behind the underdog made those facts unnecessary in most cases.
Jokes have been made about how as people get older, they tend to get more conservative. This may be because their opinions, formed in their youth and eventually calcified in their minds, become outdated (and hence, conservative) over time. Or, perhaps, aging has the effect of making one better able to appreciate depth, complexity, nuance. Wisdom begins to trump fervor, and facts push emotions off center-stage.
I don’t mean to insult Liberals here (or to praise Conservatives—I consider myself neither), but over the years, I have come to recognize some of the flaws in their thinking. In their impatience to make the world better, they don’t take the time to fully understand the problems they wish to tackle; they see the world for what they want it to be rather than the way it is. Opinions and dogma become conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom, unfortunately, is often wrong. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who coined the phrase “conventional wisdom,” wrote, “We associate truth with convenience, with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.” In Galbraith’s view, economic and social behavior “are complex, and to comprehend their character is mentally tiring. Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.”
The road to my abandonment of Liberalism has been slow and gradual. First I discovered that what one reads in the press is not always true. When Barbara Bush was invited to speak at the graduation of the Wellesley College class of 1990 (as runner-up to Alice Walker who canceled her plans to speak), a conversation took place on campus with students asking whether the wife of the President was really an appropriate choice of commencement speaker over, say, a woman who has carved for herself a distinguished career. At no time was Mrs. Bush dis-invited to speak, but when wind of the arguments and counter-arguments on campus reached the press, a firestorm took over op-ed pages all over the country. Students on campus refused to speak to the press, leaving the press to take the idea of hairy-legged, radical feminists bashing the First Female and run with it. Wellesley, feminism, and the individual students who were identified as having spoken out on the issue were maligned; at least one student received death threats and moved off campus to an undisclosed location until the furor subsided. On graduation day, the press was present in great numbers, and once the First Ladies (Mrs. Gorbachev accompanied Mrs. Bush and spoke briefly through an interpreter) had finished speaking and were driven away, reporters and camera operators broke frame and stood around, idling and chatting loudly as the students were given their diplomas.
This vicious and distasteful media circus, that worked itself into a frenzy all spring and only expired after Mrs. Bush’s very gracious speech (and the college’s and students’ gracious reception of her), left a lasting impression on me. Since then, I’ve studied propaganda and the power of limited exposure to facts and events, utilized Snopes to investigate urban legends and gross fabrications on the Web, and watched several seasons of Penn and Teller’s Showtime series Bullshit! which exposes fraud, consumer exploitation, and the creation of new conventional wisdom.
All this introduction is meant to contextualize the place of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics (published 2005) and Superfreakonomics (2009) in my continuing education. Freakonomics sets the tone for both books as an exercise in curiosity, employing the tools of research and economics to explain human behavior. (Each book stands alone, however.) While economics is perhaps one of the fields traditionally distrusted by Liberalism (and indeed, many items of conventional wisdom buoyed by Liberals are sunk by the facts in these books), the principles that inform Levitt’s inquiries are both sound and useful. The worldview of the his work is described in the following fundamental ideas:
- Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.
- The conventional wisdom is often wrong.
- Dramatic events often have distant, even subtle causes.
- “Experts”—from criminologists to real-estate agents—use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda.
- Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so.
Levitt (the economist, a professor at the University of Chicago) and Dubner (the writer, a New York-based journalist and author) use the tools of economics to ask questions about human choices and behavior, and seek answers through history, research, experimentation, and interviews of enterprising people engaged in activities ranging from high-end prostitution, to investigating what really happened the night Kitty Genovese was murdered, to inventing simple, effective, inexpensive solutions to devastating hurricanes and global warming. Some of the issues they tackle in their books include
- Why cheating to lose is worse than cheating to win
- What the Bagel Man saw: mankind may be more honest than we think
- Why the 1960s were a great time to be a criminal
- Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?
- The various costs of being a woman
- Why is chemotherapy so widely used when it so rarely works?
- Robert McNamara’s other career
- “Big-ass volcanoes” and climate change
- Monkeys are people too (in which it is revealed that—aw, hell, you have to read it to believe it)
Levitt’s insights and observations are sharp, fascinating, ticklish, and his curiosity is infectious. Dubner’s writing is ingeniously structured, witty, engaging, and amusing. They are a successful team, and their books are a revelation in an era in which too many people seem to have too little curiosity or interest in information. Their stated hope is not only that people will find their brand of inquiry interesting, but will find ways to utilize it themselves.
Reading these books was entertaining and enlightening. But more than that, I would say that reading these books is necessary. In the following excerpt, one gets both a taste of their work, and a look at how experts and journalists disseminate information to the reading and listening public:
Consider the recent history of homelessness in the United States. In the early 1980s, an advocate for the homeless named Mitch Snyder took to saying that there were about 3 million homeless Americans. The public duly sat up and took notice. More than 1 of every 100 people were homeless? That sure seemed high, but … well, the expert said it. A heretofore quiescent problem was suddenly catapulted into the national consciousness. Snyder even testified before Congress about the magnitude of the problem. He also reportedly told a college audience that 45 homeless people die each second—which would mean a whopping 1.4 billion dead homeless every year. (The U.S. population at the time was about 225 million.) Assuming that Snyder misspoke or was misquoted and meant to say that one homeless person died every forty-five seconds, that’s still 701,000 dead homeless people every year—roughly one-third of all deaths in the United States. Hmm. Ultimately, when Snyder was pressed on his figure of 3 million homeless, he admitted that it was a fabrication. Journalists had been hounding him for a specific number, he said, and he hadn’t wanted them to walk away empty-handed.
It may be sad but not surprising to learn that experts like Snyder can be self-interested to the point of deceit. But they cannot deceive on their own. Journalists need experts as badly as experts need journalists. Every day there are newspaper pages and television newscasts to be filled, and an expert who can deliver a jarring piece of wisdom is always welcome. Working together, journalists and experts are the architects of much conventional wisdom.
To some people, these books may seem overly skeptical, amoral and cynical, celebrating the baser instincts of human beings and seeing only the negative side of things. They couldn’t be more wrong. Levitt and Dubner are hopeful, optimistic, and celebrate curiosity, questioning, and fact-finding: things any intelligent person should value. As Dubner writes in the Explanatory Note of Freakonomics, “Levitt’s underlying belief [is] that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and—if the right questions are asked—is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking.”