Numbers to Deceive
The unexpected result of the recent British general election set me thinking about statistics, and polls, and how (un)reliable they are – and how people love to lie. I also wondered what Steven Levitt would make of some of the numbers.
For those who don’t already know, Steven Levitt is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and is best known for a rather unusual approach to his subject. His two books written in collaboration with Stephen Dubner, a New York journalist, became bestsellers during the last decade. It was but a short step from my deliberations on the election to my decision to revisit Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, which I enjoyed tremendously on my first readings.
Freakonomics, published in 2005, introduces us to schoolteachers and Sumo wrestlers who cheat, to home-loving drug dealers and it poses some fascinating questions that seem to have little to do with economics:
Why aren’t there more criminals around?
Are swimming pools more dangerous than guns?
Can winners actually be losers, and vice versa?
To Levitt and Dubner, nothing is sacred. They compare the Ku Klux Klan to a group of estate agents. They study the unexpected consequences of America’s abortion laws. They explore the strange world of names and ask what it is that prompts parents to name their child Temptress, or Chastity, or Orangejello – or even Shithead!
‘… people love to complain, particularly about how terrible the modern world is compared with the past. They are nearly always wrong.’
Superfreakonomics, from 2009, returns to the underworld of crime to examine the truth about prostitutes and suicide bombers. The authors irreverently suggest that it’s more likely for a police officer to have sex with a prostitute than to arrest one. They investigate why it’s more dangerous to go to hospital with a minor ailment that with a serious one. They demonstrate how complex problems often have simple solutions, and how monkeys can learn to use money.
However irreverent he seems, Levitt has a serious message and his unorthodox approach to, and use of, statistics always makes you go off to think some more about the topic. And when you do, you realise that his economics is not so zany after all. His conclusions are based on real field work, some of it downright dangerous, yet he manages to find humour in the most precarious situations.
What has all this to do with the British election result? Probably very little, but I can easily imagine Steven Levitt asking:
Isn’t there something bizarre about a voting system that elects 56 MPs on 1.5 million votes for one party, but only 1 MP on 3.9 million votes for another?
Even if you don’t care about politics, Freakonomics and its sequel are both excellent reads.