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Revealing Everything's Hidden Side Yields Freaky Results

May 8, 2008 By:
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Stephen J. Dubner

 

Stephen J. Dubner, a former staff member of The New York Times Magazine and co-author of the bestselling book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, said that he's a big believer in owning up to shortcomings.

For example, Dubner practically bragged that his co-author, Steven D. Levitt -- a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago better known for exploring offbeat topics, like sumo-wrestling, rather than pontificating on the inflation rate -- claims to know little about macroeconomic theory or to be all that good at math.

In addition, Dubner admitted that, despite its success, the book doesn't have any kind of unifying theme or a clear beginning, middle or end.

Despite these "flaws," Freakonomics, originally published in 2005, has sold more than 1.5 million copies. And so Dubner contended that a book that contains great stories doesn't actually need a unifying theme in order to be appreciated.

Freakonomics explores a hodgepodge of topics not usually found in books devoted to economics, such as why so many drug dealers still live with their mothers, whether or not realtors have their clients best interests at heart, whether money really helps determine elections and why violent crime fell precipitously in the mid-1990s.

The two authors are at work on a sequel, Superfreakonomics -- a reference to Rick James, anyone?

What's Going On in the World 
Dubner's talk, which took place May 5 at Gratz College, was attended by more than 250 people. It was part of the Gratz College Speaker Series, which is co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

When it came to zeroing in on his designated topic, "Freakonomics: A Jewish Perspective," Dubner acknowledged that the Jewish religion doesn't have a whole lot in common with behavioral economics -- a discipline primarily concerned with incentives and how people get what they want.

Yet perhaps, there is indeed a point or two where Judaism and data analysis intersect.

In an interview prior to his speech, Dubner said that both Judaism and economics are concerned with asking probing questions about how the world works, and each offers a very different set of tools to go about trying to change things for the better.

"The issue is, if you try to rush out and fix things based on your assumptions or your emotions or your opinions, you might spend a lot of time addressing things that aren't really that relevant," he continued. "Whereas, what we try to do in Freakonomics is to forget about emotions and just try to really solve what's going on in the world -- and we use data to do that."

"Data, real empirical data, is a much better place to start to try to figure out what is really going on in the world," said Dubner.

Dubner's talk essentially split in two: One half focused on his work with Levitt and the other on his own personal spiritual journey.

The youngest of eight children, Dubner was raised on a farm in upstate New York.

He attended Appalachian State University in North Carolina before moving to New York City to become a writer.

Both his parents were Brooklyn-born Jews who converted to Catholicism. (Dubner's mother, born Florence Greenglass, was a first cousin of Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed in 1953 along with her husband, Julius, for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.)

Beginning in his 20s, Dubner set out to learn more about his family's roots and, in the process, became what he called "a Jew-in-progress."

The choice nearly severed his relationship with his mother. (His father had passed away by then.)

"We are all Jews-in-progress of some kind," the Manhattan resident told the audience.

Dubner detailed his family's past in his first book, Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family, first published in 1998. Upon the success of Freakonomics, the earlier memoir was renamed Choosing My Religion: A Memoir of a Family Beyond Belief.

During the question-and-answer session, Dubner explained that publishers felt that the new title given to his first book -- which echoes the R.E.M. song "Losing My Religion" and was, in fact, the headline of the original New York Times Magazine piece that Dubner penned about his family -- might entice more non-Jews to purchase the book.

Dubner said that he's currently at work on a book about Moses, taking the perspective that the Exodus story is largely a struggle of wills between Moses and God. He added that the idea that God can be challenged by mortals -- a notion he said is totally alien to the Catholicism of his youth -- helped draw him to Judaism and may explain why he feels so comfortable challenging authority in his writings.

He also revealed that one of the central questions that he and Levitt will deal with in the sequel to Freakonomics is just what data and social experiments have to say about the true nature of human beings -- whether they're inherently altruistic, selfish or somewhere in the middle.

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