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Two years ago The New York Times Magazine ran a provocative article about Steven Levitt, whom it dubbed “the most brilliant young economist in America.” But for someone supposedly so smart, Levitt was surprisingly modest about his abilities. “I just don’t know very much about the field of economics,” he said. “I’m not good at math. … If you ask me whether deflation’s good or bad, it would be total fakery if I said I knew anything.” Levitt’s brilliance, it turns out, lies in the originality of his thinking. As the Times noted, he’s best known for his claim that urban crime rates dropped in the nineties because abortion was legalized two decades earlier. He reached that conclusion after looking at the issue from a statistical perspective. Studying the data, he saw that the usual explanations — such as better crime-fighting methods or the end of the crack epidemic — didn’t match up chronologically with the decline in urban crime. What was in step with the drop, Levitt said, was a decrease in the population of young inner-city males. And that, he argued, was due to Roe v. Wade. Because poor women suddenly had expanded access to abortion, a whole generation of kids who might have become street criminals were never born. Now Levitt, a University of Chicago professor, and his Times profiler, Stephen Dubner, have expanded their article into a full-length book, “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.” The two ask intriguing questions that don’t seem to have much to do with economics as it’s commonly understood. But that’s precisely the appeal of their book, and why it’s garnering the kind of buzz that writers like Malcolm Gladwell (who contributes a cover blurb) usually get. “Freakonomics” isn’t without its flaws. The authors have an annoying habit of starting each chapter with a distracting quote from the original Times article. It’s also not clear who’s saying what. And while Levitt is obviously the ideas guy and Dubner is his scribe, it’s not always clear who’s really doing the talking. Still, the duo have produced a quick, lively, jargon-free read. Among the several strange questions that Levitt and Dubner explore, one of the oddest is this: How are schoolteachers like sumo wrestlers? At first it seems like an absurd comparison, since the two occupations are completely unlike each other. But the authors show how both teachers and sumo wrestlers have learned to cheat in order to advance within their professions. Teachers do well if their pupils do well, Levitt notes. In Chicago, this means educators are evaluated on the basis of standardized student tests. Three years ago the Chicago school system decided to analyze the test results of all students in order to see if they could find any pattern. And they did: The answer sheets of some students who showed inexplicable improvement from the previous year also featured a regular pattern of correct and incorrect answers. It turned out that these students’ teachers had tried to improve test scores by altering their pupils’ answers. In order to cover their tracks, the teachers penciled in some wrong answers. But they always answered the same questions incorrectly, giving themselves away. Levitt takes a similar look at the fight stats for Japanese sumo wrestlers, whose performance is judged by their win-loss record over the course of a 15-match season. He saw that a disproportionate number of wrestlers entered their final match with an 8-to-6 record. Levitt inferred that the more successful wrestlers — who had already won most of their matches — apparently sometimes threw a match to a fellow wrestler who might need that win to keep advancing. As with the teachers, it was a statistical anomaly that exposed the wrestlers who were cheating. Here and elsewhere, Levitt asks questions about data collected by other researchers that they didn’t think to ask themselves. Despite Levitt’s cleverness, it’s not clear where he’s going with all his inquiries. Early in the book, Levitt and his coauthor admit that they aren’t quite sure what they’re trying to say. But later they express the hope that readers — presumably, both economists and normal folk — will become less willing to accept the conventional wisdom, especially when it leads them to engage in actions that won’t lead to the outcome they want. (Levitt claims that reading to kids doesn’t make them better students, for example.) At the very least, “Freakonomics” is probably the first book on the so-called dismal science that’s a good summer beach read. Anthony Paonita is the acting editor in chief of Corporate Counsel.

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