Thursday, January 26, 2006


by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This is the first of a bit of a popular science reading binge I'm having at the moment (assuming you count economics as science). Steven Levitt is a smart young economist with a reputation for tackling unorthodox subjects. This book is basically a popularised collection of Levitt's essays. There's no real unifying theme to it, other than to convince people to think rationally and not to always accept conventional wisdom. Something that anyone with a scientific background should already be familiar with.

There's plenty of fascinating stuff in here. The most controversial finding is a link between the fall in the crime rate all over America in the 90s and the legalisation of abortion twenty years earlier. Without consulting all the references (and following the maths) there's no way to say for sure if that is actually the case, but it's a startling and thought-provoking idea, (and also one that makes logical sense).

That takes up one chapter, and the rest of the book deals with completely different subjects. The most memorable parts look at the management structure of crack gangs, and the factors in someone's childhood that influence whether they'll 'succeed' later in life. The last chapter is a bit silly, looking at how childrens names filter down through the socio-economic classes over time, but it's still worthwhile for some amusing stories about kids with regrettable names. Among the worst: a pair of brothers called Winner and Loser, and a kid called Shithead.

It's a fascinating and thought-provoking book. It's only flaw is that it's aimed at a scientifically uneducated audience (I often have this problem, being too educated for the popular science ones and not educated enough for the serious ones), and there's a large amount of smug promotion of the author (no doubt done well intentionally by his co-author, but annoying nonetheless).

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