When Freakonomics was published in 2005, it generated controversy for a section about how the legalization of abortion in the U.S. helped reduce crime, because children who are unwanted would be disproportionately likely to be criminals.
When its sequel, Superfreakonomics, was published in 2009, it got blowback from environmentalists for asking whether trying to get the world to consume less energy is the right way to fight climate change.
So what'll be controversial about the authors' new book, Think Like a Freak?
"I am the worst person to ask because we never know, believe it or not," says Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist who co-writes books with University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt. Both are speaking at a Live Talks Los Angeles event on May 21 and a Live Talks Business Forum on May 22.
The books have sold millions of copies, and the Freakonomics website, movie, radio show and podcast have extended the brand, which is known for challenging conventional wisdom while unearthing "hidden side of everything." Now, after years of giving its readers unconventional fish, Think Like a Freak will try to teach them to fish differently, applying Freakonomics principles to their own lives.
While some of Think Like a Freak's advice draws from social science, much of it is common sense, Dubner acknowledges. But the authors argue that common sense is too often ignored, as many people just don't have the time or willpower to take a step back and evaluate their own actions or beliefs impartially, much less the willingness to take action to change.
For instance, the principle that correlation does not imply causation - that when two variables change in the same manner at the same time, one doesn't necessarily cause the other - is one of the most basic principles of social science research. It's still often ignored by the general public.
The book tells the story of how the pair once consulted for a retail company that put ads in Sunday newspapers across the country every week. So how, they asked, was it clear whether the ads were working? The company didn't know. The Freakonomics duo proposed a randomized trial that would pull some ads in some markets and really try to tell if it affected ad sales. The company leadership would never allow that, the marketers said.
A big principle of Levitt and Dubner's is to acknowledge that issues are more complex than we usually think. Think Like a Freak has an entire section encouraging people to say "I don't know" more often. This principle is why the authors often take on the environment. "Most issues in the environmental realm are nowhere near as open and shut as an oil company or an environmentalist would have you believe," says Dubner. "It's such a complicated set of issues without much complete information and such a long time frame and so much competing interest and people get on one side of the debate and dig in their heels."
Duber says he's amazed at how often the radio show's fans look at its conclusion rather than the process of getting there. After a recent episode about how hitting someone with a car has surprisingly few consequences, pedestrian advocates showered them with compliments. But "those are the same people who wrote to use about how we were morons for writing about drunk walking," says Dubner, referring to another episode. "They were saying, 'How dare you blame pedestrians for getting run over.'"
As the Freakonomics brand has expanded, it's not just the two main authors anymore. Dubner, based in New York, has a research assistant, and Levitt has a few researchers working with him in Chicago. There are six people in New York who work on the radio show. All of these people contribute to the blog (and some of the content is repurposed from one format to another).
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During the initial stages of creating the book, Dubner says, he and Levitt spend a lot of time hashing out ideas, and then he goes off and writes the text, and Levitt gives him feedback on it. Dubner spends most of his days writing, but spends one marathon day a week recording the radio show.
The day-to-day demands don't prevent them from thinking big. After Superfreakonomics, they considered a project that would "identify and quantify the root causes of all the world's major problems," Dubner says. "As idiotically grandiose as that sounds, that's what were trying to do. If we could do that and identify these root causes, then we could propose solutions for them.
"It was nuts," he adds. "For five days - I've never done drugs but I was imagining it [like] being high on the best drugs in the world. 'Oh my god, that tree is talking to me and every word it says is brilliant.' Then we realized we were wrong."
Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt are speaking at Live Talks Los Angeles on May 21 and a Live Talks Business Forum on May 22. See livetalksla.org for more info.