At the end of the book, there is a short section about Two Paths to Harvard. Why is it always Harvard, by the way? Why is that the exemplar for academic achievement? It's as if going to any of the other hundreds of great schools is like being the runner-up bitch at the Westminster Dog Show. But I digress. To demonstrate their thesis that Freakonomics shows that parenting isn't the strongest determining factor in achievement, they compare two boys. One is an African-American boy born in Daytona Beach, Florida, whose mother deserted him when he was two and his abusive, alcoholic father who was finally locked up when he was twelve, leaving him on his own to join a gang and sell drugs. The other was born in an upper-middle class suburb of Chicago to loving, well-educated parents. It turns out they both went to Harvard, the former now a professor there. The boy from Chicago did OK at Harvard, but things eventually went sideways. His name is Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. The Unabomber.
So what is the point of this? Two observations hardly make for rigorous analysis. Besides, Ted Kaczynski is schizophrenic. It has nothing to do with the variables observed and analyzed. And that's the whole problem with "economic" models - you can never know if you are looking at the right variables and or truly understand cause and effect. This is the whole idiotic idea behind Cheerios protecting your heart, an extrapolation of a tentative conclusion of a slew of flawed "medical" (statistical not physical) studies. So if I want to know whether to stock more blue or more red shirts in my store, fine, lets try to understand our market. But if we want to understand the economic impact of wretched people having children, we don't need a model. If we're a government regulating false advertising, we don't need a model to inform us that Cheerios will not protect us from heart disease, especially the implication that that is the ONLY thing we need to protect our heart.
I love statistics, I built statistical models myself at many points in my career. But for heavens sake, lets not delude ourselves that we can use models for real life or death issues like public health or the sociology of child rearing. Models can give us insight (or mislead us), but every counterintuitive result has to be examined rigorously and not taken at face value.
Freakonomics was interesting, but not very useful.
Posted May 20, 2009 3:18 PM
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