Apr 13, 2010


Jimi Hendrix said he would "wave his freak flag high." Frank Zappa warned us, or our parents, actually, about "hungry freaks, daddy." Steven J. Levitt called his off-kilter take on economics "freakonomics" not only because his conclusions made him freakish by the standards of conventional economics. I think it's really because he relished not being asked to sit at the economists' table in the college cafeteria. He likes being a freak, and you know what, so do I.

I am surely not alone. Even if Frank Zappa fans will always be relatively few and far between, Hendrix sold bajillions of albums to people who recognized a fellow traveler. And I was impressed but not all that surprised to read on the Wikipedia entry for Levitt's book Freakonomics that it sold four million copies. There must be lots of us freaks around, or maybe we're not as freaky as we'd like to believe.

Jerry Maguire's character loved to say, "Show me the money!" Levitt might not say "show me the data" in so many words, but that is surely his message. Like my friend Ted (whose comment appears on an early post, and who may weigh in on this one as well), Levitt is not exactly scornful of bad logic (or in the other Ted's case, bad science). He simply keeps asking for the backup. And if it's not forthcoming, he goes out and finds it, and lets the conclusions fall where they may.

This is good logic, or good science. Look at the data first, then draw your conclusions. Everyone knows you're not supposed to start with conclusions you'd like to support, then dig around to find some. So why do economists, and scientists, and lots of the rest of us, keep doing just that?

Maybe we're human. Maybe we should shake the dust off our freak flags and start waving.

One last word about Zappa's "hungry freaks, daddy." Daddy was as in daddy-o, not the paternal parent, at least in my opinion. When it comes to parents, we (I'm a Boomer, of course) are not only the people our parents warned us about, we are our parents as well. I just became a grandpa for the first time, and I'm as pleased and giggly as my own dear dad was when my daughter, the new mother, was a newborn herself. It's not so bad, in fact it's really great.

You want to know why he called it Freakonomics" Read the sucker, or least Google it for the Wikipedia page, and read that. What could be more 21st-century?

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