Book Review: Freakonomics

It’s about time I did some catching up around here – I finished this book simply AGES ago and haven’t even mentioned it. But it’s an older book anyway, so I didn’t think anyone was waiting on pins and needles for my opinion. Not that anyone would be waiting on pins and needles for my opinion regardless.

But anyway….

This was another instance of Bryan asking me to read it, my never getting around to it because it sounded boring, then deciding to pick it up because a girlfriend said she liked it. I know, I KNOW, but listening to my husband can be a real blind spot sometimes.

I liked this book for the same reason I like watching CSI – it is rational, and logical, and sticks to the facts. It teaches me to think critically and apart from my emotional flavor of the moment. While it is a book of economical studies and statistics and trends, the authors don’t bog you down with all the details of statistical analysis.

Rather, they tell a story using the numbers, and their stories are captivating.

Especially the story of the researcher who spent years studying Chicago gangs, became a trusted insider, and happened to inherit one drug dealer’s detailed financial records, neatly and meticulously charted in lined notebooks. And the story about how Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu banned abortion in his country and was subsequently overthrown, years later, by the generation who lived because of the ban.

The authors address many myths regarding statistics and cause/effect relationships. They challenge ‘conventional wisdom.’ They hypothesize what REALLY caused crime rates to drop in the nineties. They shatter your beliefs about what which factors affect your child’s educational experience. And they tells us how to spot cheaters and stop them. My favorite part is when they point out all the times ‘experts’ ‘bend’ the facts to suit their own purposes. I love that. Justice is glorious when it’s happening to someone else.

Let me give you a quick example of why I need to read books like this more often. A couple weeks ago after picking Ruthie up from preschool on a Thursday, we came home to eat lunch with Bryan. On Thursdays my kids don’t take a nap because I attend my Recovery group in the afternoon, but often I send them to their rooms for an hour of quiet time so I can regroup and recharge before leaving.

That particular Thursday was beautiful, warm, and sunny, and Bryan asked if there was time to take the kids outside to play. I looked at the clock in the kitchen, and felt I should tell him there was no time, but I ignored the mental hip-check I was getting and convinced myself that there was indeed time to play outside.

What happened after that I cannot explain – other than maybe I got caught up in the lunch/nap routine – because at 1pm I ushered the kids upstairs for their naps, relieved to have some down time before my group. I took a fifteen minute cat nap, I read a chapter of my book, I checked my email, I marveled at how relaxed I was feeling for a Thursday afternoon.

Then I went up to get the kids from their quiet time like I always do, but this time when I looked at the clock in Ruthie’s room something seemed funny about it. The clock read 2:30, but that couldn’t be right because I just KNEW it was 1:30, because every Thursday I leave my house at 1:30 for group, and look at me doing just that right now: proof that it was 1:30 and not 2:30.

I shook off that funny feeling and loaded the kids into the car. I called Bryan from the road to tell him I had left, and he seemed confused. I thought you left a long time ago, he said. Whatever, I thought. He obviously doesn’t pay attention.

I looked at the clock in the car, and it read 2:45. That’s strange, I thought. This clock is wrong, too! How could both clocks be wrong when it is actually 1:45? What?! Even my WATCH says it’s 2:45! WTF?

At this point I called the house where my group meets and asked the babysitter WHAT THE HELL TIME IT WAS, and apologized for being late when I realized that it was, indeed, nearly 3:00. I was a full hour late.

After four years of apprenticeship under Gil Grissom I STILL do not trust the facts over my own emotions. HE WOULD BE SO ASHAMED OF ME! I believed so strongly that I knew what time it was, that FOUR CLOCKS reading the actual time did not convince me I was wrong.

In hindsight, the whole thing felt like a dream in which nothing made sense, yet everything made PERFECT sense – like when you dream you are sitting on the couch at home, but nothing around you looks or feels familiar. You know for some reason that you belong there, but you have no idea where ‘there’ is.

That is how I felt that Thursday afternoon, and that is how I navigate through much of my life. I appreciated the cold hard facts in Freakonomics, and I appreciated the lesson in asking the right questions. The book is statistics done right, and it is stories well told, and it is written for the common (wo)man who isn’t normally attracted to such nerdy things as charts and graphs and spreadsheets.

It is an easy, quick read, and I highly recommend it – even if you think you’ll hate it. Trust me, you won’t.

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