That’s the title of the new Freakonomics book just out this Monday, May 12, and it is also the name of this week’s Podcast. It’s a good show and a good premise. However, as a scientist (well, biologist – but it counts!), I think that calling this a show /book about economics is incorrect. It’s really a show about science. Or at least the application of scientific method to problems that are often not tackled by traditional scientists, but by their more handsomely paid colleagues, economists. Or by their equally unhandsomely paid colleagues, sociologists and psychologists.
It shouldn’t be something I stop to point out, but it is somehow troubling to me to parse science. It probably means more about me than it does about the actual topic to say this though.
Nevertheless, the current episode is a combination Q&A and book promotion. Which is why I need to point out that sometimes it is hardest for us to look critically at the things that are near to us. This is exactly why we are judged by a jury of our peers – people who may be able to relate to us in some way, but who are also not emotionally involved in the crime.
Several things struck me in this episode that I considered writing about. One was the questioner who asked about the current fetishism of bacon. It turned out that the question was examined just as I thought it should be: one part seriously considering the question and one part reading the assumptions and position of the questioner.
I put that one out of my mind. Then there were two questions that brought up the financial motivations of Levitt and Dubner. The first was about whether it might be worthwhile to have a tiered questioning scheme in which listeners could pay money to give their questions higher priority, i.e. the highest tiered questions were guaranteed to be answered on air, while lower tier questions would only be answered if they met other quality standards.
Levitt and Dubner addressed this question well too, saying that it would undermine the quality of the show to do this, while also raising an interesting question about the pricing of these tiers. Would they be priced only to separate the listeners? Or would this actually be meeting some financial goal of the show’s producers.
In the course of the discussion, Levitt said this:
LEVITT: And our podcast is defined by a relationship in which we give it away, and we don’t really do this for money. I’m not sure why we do it, but I don’t think it’s for money. It can’t be for money. And so, to then change the frame that this is about money.
then, backing this up further, when the question about how they could participate in a fundraiser for NPR if this show was not, in some way, about the money:
But that makes me feel bad, we shouldn’t have taken their money. Why would we take their money, we’re just doing this for fun. It feels horrible to take their money.
A second question comes in also questioning the financial motivations of the show’s hosts:
from Meredith Summers. “Hello, I wonder if it would be at all possible to quantify in financial terms Steven Levitt’s contribution to the University of Chicago? For example, does his fame bring in more students who hope to work with him and learn from him, and is this contribution commensurate with his salary.
This question was considered in a number of interesting ways. First, Levitt made clear that he was paid very well by the University of Chicago, and had nothing to complain about there. (I’m glad to hear this. It always makes me happy to hear about academics doing well. It’s so often the case that academics are disenfranchised from their knowledgable contributions, that it is comforting to know that this does not happen at the best Universities.)
They also spoke about the difference between the way Universities take ownership of inventions (they do) vs literary contributions (they don’t). I expect that this is probably due to the bargaining power of academics at the time that each of these legal questions came up for discussion and the argument that being a professor may not actually drastically help you to write a book, whereas many inventions require the infrastructure that a University supplies). “It reminds you of alcohol versus marijuana in that if you were starting over from scratch there’s no way these two would be so different,” Dubner comments.
But still, the question remained largely unanswered. “Why do the show?”
I think there are several reasons why they do the show. The first, they cover: because it’s fun, and it’s cool to do things that are creative and fun. I would feel the same way.
But the part of the answer that is a little too close to them to either see, or to admit, is that the podcast / radioshow promotes their books. It’s right there in the ‘About’ section of their website. Blah, blah blah, wrote an article. blah, blah, blah, wrote a book. blah, blah. Book sold well. Podcast, blog, etc. etc. were born. Fun, yes. But it all fits together neatly as something they enjoy doing that brings more people in to buy their books so they can spend more time doing what they enjoy doing.
Like the quote that works so well for some people but not others, “do what you love and the money will follow.”
I may be getting a little dark here, but I’m not sure that always works…
Nevertheless, listen to the podcast, buy their books, you’ll love them. They’re filled with good questions and how they can be answered in a scientifically rigorous way. More power to you guys!