More on Freakonomics

Felix Salmon added an interesting comment to my recent entry, a review of Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I thought I’d respond to it here, rather than in another commment. Here’s what he wrote:

The one thing the publishers have clearly done well is send out this book to any and every blogger out there — normally with predictably gushing results. I was not as impressed, however. Am I really the only person out there who thinks this particular emperor has very few clothes?

Actually, he’s not the only one criticizing the book and its authors. A very persistent Steve Sailer has been making the blog rounds (though he missed mine), commenting on those gushing reviews and arguing that he has already “demolished” at least one of Levitt’s claims—that legalized abortion eventually led to reduced crime. And “lkspence” at the Vision Circle blog writes that “Freakonomics Misses the Mark.”

I have to agree with Mr. Salmon that someone in the PR department of HarperCollins has been doing a great job of generating buzz. Freakonomics has been #2 on the best-seller list all week, second only to the new Harry Potter book, which people are pre-ordering like mad. Freakonomics got a glowing write-up in the Wall Street Journal. NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Steven Levitt last Saturday. re-printed two excerpts of the book.

And then there were the blogs.

It appears that the authors’ publishing representative did a google search on Steven Levitt’s name and contacted the bloggers that turned up in the search results—at least those bloggers who had written something positive about him. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened in my case. The very first entry I wrote for my blog was effusively titled “The Economist Steven Levitt and Other Heroes.” The rep emailed me, mentioned that she had read the entry, and asked if I’d like a galley, or advance copy, of the new book to review or discuss on my website. Felix Salmon appears to have received his copy of the book the same way, as he mentions in his critique that he had previously said some nice things about Steven Levitt. This practice of handing out review copies is so commonplace, though, that it seems hardly worth mentioning.

About the “predictably gushing” reviews from bloggers, I admit that I praised the book highly. But I also appraised the book honestly—from my layperson’s perspective—and I still think that the book deserves the glowing reviews that it’s getting.

To be sure, there are a few things I didn’t like about the book. The chapters are a little disjointed, without a thematic thread running through the book’s entirety. But the authors acknowledge this characteristic of the book in their introduction, so I didn’t feel the need to reiterate it in the review. I took the book for what they said it was, and loved it.

My other disappointment with Freakonomics was that the examples of economic sleuthing can’t really be applied to other situations by somebody like me—someone, in other words, who doesn’t have access to the same piles of data and, more importantly, someone without the brilliant mind of Levitt. However, the book never purports to be a how-to manual on exploring the hidden side of everything. Instead, it pretty clearly advertises itself as a look at how a “rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.” I didn’t bring up my disappointment in the review, because it doesn’t seem fair to criticize it for not being something that it never claims to be, any more than it would be fair to criticize a biography of a chef for not teaching me how to cook.

Felix Salmon shouldn’t feel all alone, even if I don’t agree with his assessment.

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