Am I the only one who found Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics the most ridiculously overhyped book in years?
For a small book with big margins, Freakonomics certainly got a lot of exposure. It tells cute, entertaining stories more likely to be overheard in your local pub than in a faculty lounge. Why do so many drug dealers live with their mothers? Are blacks handicapping their children’s future by giving them distinctive names? But the research basis for most of these tiny stories ranged from the sketchy to the irrelevant.
In one chapter Freakonomics examines why some children develop good reading skills and others do not. Does it depend on whether a parent reads to her child? No. According to the authors, a far more significant factor is whether a child’s parents bequeath their children a good genetic base for learning. Proof? Adopted children fare worse in literacy, intelligence, and wealth (when they reach adulthood) than do their non-adopted siblings. You might ask: how many of these adopted children received optimal pre-natal care? Or even more significantly, how many were adopted as infants? You might ask these obvious questions, but Dubner and Levitt didn’t bother. The book is littered with many such gaping research holes.
Which is why it’s a little bewildering to see the New York Times Magazine offering them a regular soapbox for their half-baked ideas. Today’s column tells the story of Seth Roberts, a Berkeley Psychology Professor who has managed to lose weight (by drinking canola oil and sugar water between meals) and improve his mood (by watching morning television). Evidence? Um … well .. it worked for him. And after all, the public might just buy it: “With the Atkins diet company filing for bankruptcy,” the authors explain, “America is eager for its next diet craze.”
Seth Roberts’ methodology sounds disturbingly familiar. A contempt for scientific rigor. An aptitude for generating a good story based on little more than groundless speculation and junk science. A desire to profit handsomely from selling zany theories to a credulous public. In other words, Freakonomics.