Freakonomics (review)

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What’s Real and How We Feel

There’s an appealing sort of crazy, on the surface, to Freakonomics — the theory, the book, and now the documentary: It sounds so reasonable at first glance, the idea that, say, kids with unique “black”-sounding names might have a harder time getting ahead in a racist world than kids named John and Sarah. And maybe it is reasonable… but it probably doesn’t help the cause when the wonderfully snarky Morgan Spurlock is narrating his exploration of the idea and ends up reducing it to the level of a notion both too good and too obvious to completely account for the correlation between race and economic disparity. It sounds for all the world as if Spurlock (Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, Super Size Me) is mocking Freakonomics.

Economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner pioneered the freakonomic idea — in their book of the same name [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] that economics is not rational and hence should not be explored from a rational perspective, but it all rather ends up, in this conglom of short films by renowned documentarians delving into their examples, sounding like some of the prescientific ideas about the world that today come to us as highly amusing balderdash. The now clearly wacky idea that, for instance, sperm contained tiny homunculi, perfectly formed little people, surely seemed entirely reasonable 500 years ago, too. And it made enough sense to work for those who used it to organize their ideas about the world. But how right or wrong an idea sounds is no voucher of its factuality.

It’s odd that the film ignores this notion, though, when it could work to support Levitt and Dubner. The odd hit-or-miss-ness of the endeavor skims over some of the points it should be making, particularly as counters to some of the criticisms of the Freakonomics theory. Levitt and Dubner appear on film in between the documentary segments, and in one bit, Dubner makes the point that their much-derided theory about the necessity to uncover the “incentives” that drive people include not only financial incentives but also moral and social ones. This distinction is eminently backed up by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s (Jesus Camp) episode on whether bribing kids to get good grades actually works: it doesn’t, nowhere near as well as anyone would expect. Except that there’s no underscoring of that. This bit, too, appears to mock the theory for being incomplete… and perhaps justifiable so. It’s a strange tact for a film in support of Freakonomics to take, however.

And why does no one make the point about factuality in Eugene Jarecki’s look at why crime rates fell so dramatically across the U.S. in the 1990s? Levitt attributes it to the legalization of abortion in 1973, meaning fewer unwanted and neglected children were born to grow up to become criminals in the 1990s — many people find this idea offensive because they find the idea of abortion offensive. But while Levitt’s theory may someday be disproven — some say it already has been — that will have nothing to do with whether X number of people find the theory itself distasteful. Reality is not dependent upon how you feel about it… though this is an idea that enjoys a preposterous popularity in the United States (as with evolution, too). I wish someone, anyone here had acknowledged this.

The value of Levitt and Dubner’s work isn’t necessarily in the rightness or wrongness of it — though of course that’s a factor — but in the fact that they dare to ask crazy questions and not shy from crazy-sounding answers. Sometimes they fall into the trap of liking an idea too much to be scientifically objective about it. Sometimes they go so far in the other direction and turn off their audience. That fundamentally interesting core of their work — the difference between what we find when we go looking and how we feel about it — is worth exploring… but it is, sadly ignored here.

What’s really in sperm certainly must have sounded far more insane than “tiny homunculi” once, too. But that had nothing to do with reality, either.

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