Saturday, May 22, 2010

Book Review: Freakonomics

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (P.S.)Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (P.S.) by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I first requested this book after listening to Dr. Levitt's talk at TED on child safety seats. (Please forgive this commercial interruption as I encourage all of you to explore TED. You're certain to find something that will fascinate you.) Kansas law requires all children to be in a five-point-harness car seat until they are four years old and forty pounds. Kansas Dad and I were less than pleased when we had to purchase one of only five available car seats (at the time) with a five point harness for children who weigh more than forty pounds when First Son was three. All the choices were expensive. We, of course, followed the law and I have to admit I love the car seat we bought, which First Daughter is now enjoying, but I can't help but wonder if some of our hard-earned money could have been better spent. (Or rather, some of my parent's hard-earned money, as they were gracious and generous enough to purchase the seat for us.)

Moving on...Freakonomics is not a difficult book to read. Very little analysis is presented (no p-values or anything like that). Instead, they only present their overall findings. Some of them are more surprising than others. (I don't think it's all that surprising that some teachers cheat on the standardized tests; I did find it encouraging that at least some administrators were willing to seek out those teachers and remedy the situation.)

I was most interested in the chapters that looked at aspects of parenting and education (surprised?).
No one is more susceptible to an expert's fearmongering than a parent. Fear is in fact a major component of the act of parenting. A parent, after all, is the steward of another creature's life, a creature who in the beginning is more helpless htan the newborn of nearly any other species. This leads a lot of parents to spend a lot of their parenting energy simply being scared.

The problem is that they are often scared of the wrong things. It's not their fault, really. Separating fact from rumors is always hard word, especially for a busy parent.
The points right back to the topic I wrote on earlier, car seats. It also fits right in with the recent news about all those drop-side crib deaths and recalls. Of course, every child's death is a tragedy, and I am truly sorry for every parent who has lost a child in a crib death. Not all tragedies, however, can be prevented. Kansas Dad wonders how many millions of drop-side cribs are being used right now (and have been for years and years) with less than fifty deaths in the past ten years or so. Do you wonder if there are other products that are actually more likely to cause harm to our children but are not being addressed for political or financial reasons? (Or, perhaps just because no one can prove the cause.) Right now, though, the news is all about cribs (and how you should stop using the really bad ones but don't put the child in your bed!).

In talking about how much parenting matters, the authors present the ideas of Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption.
Harris argued, albeit gently, that parents are wrong to think they contribute so mightily to their child's personality. This belief, she wrote, was a "cultural myth." Harris argued that the top-down influence of parents is overwhelmed by the grassroots effect of peer pressure, the blunt force applied each day by friends and school mates.
This argument is addressed a little in The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling (my review here) where parents can increase their influence through homeschooling itself (by increasing the time spent together) and through developing relationships with other families with similar values, rather than the other students children may encounter in a school setting. It seems intuitive that parents do matter (which the authors admit) but perhaps they matter in ways that cannot easily be measured. Certainly looking at my own beliefs, I'd say they were shaped much more by my parents, family and my most recent reading than by my childhood friends.

The authors move on to something that can be measured more easily, test scores. I will not do an analysis of their findings (which would be difficult without looking at the actual research rather than just reading this book); I'm inclined to believe the characteristics of parents and students they say are correlated with high test scores are. I doubt I'm alone, however, in arguing vehemently that test scores are not a valid measure of a child. Not in any way. I don't want my children to do badly, of course (unlikely, if we are to believe this book, given the characteristics Kansas Dad and I share), but I really don't care about test scores and I hope my children don't care, either. By teaching them to care about learning, I assume the test scores will be just fine for whatever it is they decide they want to do.

I was reminded of this study reviewed at Homeschooling Research Notes that confirmed, if nothing else, that a certain demographic of parents won't decrease their children's test scores by choosing to homeschool, though they're also unlikely to increase them.

The book continues through a bunch of random topics, most of which were interesting if not entirely enlightening. I enjoyed the book enough to request their next one (SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance) for which I'll have to wait a while as all the library copies are checked out.

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