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Freak-Freakonomics

- February 27, 2008

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Ot the hundreds of articles I’ve written in my three and a half decades as a political scientist, some have been theoretically rigorous, some have been empirically rigorous, and a few have even been both. Some others have been quirky, cute, off-beat, funny, or even bizarre — lightweight but, well, fun. On those occasions when one of my articles has gotten much play in the media, it’s invariably been the latter, not the former, type of article — on the political implications of baldness, say, or the economics of big-time college football or the stupidity, ugliness, and immorality of Democrats — that’s made a splash. The media just love this kind of stuff, and the public seems to eat it up (at least by comparison with mainstream political science, which seems to get ignored by everyone except mainstream political scientists).

So I’m not at all surprised that, of all the articles and books that our colleagues in the dismal science of economics have produced in recent years, one above all others has commanded media and public attention. I’m speaking, of course, of the enormously popular Freakonomics (more than three million copies sold!).

If you’ve never gotten around to reading Freakonomics, you probably should — if for no other reason than to try to figure out for yourself what all the fuss is about. It won’t take you long to get a sense of the book; it’s not all that long, and its chapters, though pretty much self-contained, tell and re-tell the same story, which goes more or less like this: Here’s a topic that economists haven’t previously studied. Here’s a pinch of economic theory and a dash of data. Aha: truth is revealed — another victory for economics!

So what’s my point? It’s not to contribute yet another review to the long list that began to accumulate as soon as Freakonomics was published, in mainstream media outlets, here and here and here, and, more to my taste, in the blogosphere, e.g., a “seminar” (here) over at Crooked Timber and a long series of posts over at Marginal Revolution (here).

Rather, I simply want to call to your attention something I missed when it was published electronically a year and a half ago in The Economist’s Voice, here: Ariel Rubenstein’s hilarious send-up/critique of Freakonomics. If, like me, you missed the Rubenstein piece, be sure to take a look. I think it’ll both bring some smiles of recognition to your face and cause you to think about some issues that are well worth pondering. It may be review material for many of you, but I think you’ll find that it bears re-reading. Although Freakonomics contains some clever stuff, I’ve never really been a fan of it, and Rubenstein helped me understand why.