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Freakonomics and Critical Thinking

Yes, I know, the book "Freakonomics" came out YEARS ago. But I am just reading it for the first time. There are several things I like about it.

It is at its heart an ode to skepticism. In my opinion this is a worthy thing. There are many things which are unexamined in this world and it seems to me that the foundations of many critical issues often go unexamined. Sometimes they are clouded in mystery intentionally. Being able to cut through this and see clearly what the real relationships are is an essential skill, and the first step in learning it is to understand that it is possible. This book gives some examples of where it is possible and reveals some of the value in doing so (catching cheating teachers, placing your attention on real rather than supposed risks ...)

The book also provides some realistic examples of how causation and coorelation are two different things. Breaking the two apart is the first step in removing superstitious behavior and moving beyond just trying things which might have worked before in a different situation. Even with the very light treatment given to the statistical methods used, the book points out that it is something which is possible and something that can be valuable to examine. This sort of critical thinking is the biggest defense against the propaganda which I find is increasingly common in the world.

The biggest failing I see in this book is that it fails to point out the real heart of the "thinking" method that Levitt uses, a critical examination of the model that is being used. Time and time again he talks about analysis and conventional wisdom, but fails to make the connection that conventional wisdom is based on an incomplete or incorrect model of realities. He also fails to point out the possible errors or inevitable omissions in his own models. Analysis is nothing unless your model is constructed correctly. And all models are abstractions to one degree or another. Skillfully building those models and understanding the factors which influence behaviors is a skill which is in short supply and which results in any number of bad decisions. Of course, it is impossible for a single person to question everything and build a model to support all of their thoughts, but it is possible to show people how that models posed by others should be examined for veracity and completeness. Spending a bit of time on the fundamentals would be worthwhile in my opinion, though it might make it much less of a quick read - something the millions of readers of this book certainly appreciate.

OK, I just lied. The biggest failing of the book iin the presence of the insanely effusive paeans to Levitt's big brain which are interspersed with the chapters and are plastered all over the dust jacket. Things like "Levitt is considered a demigod", "The most brilliant young economist in America" and "Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America" litter the pages. Why? Shouldn't the work speak for itself?



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