A Day of Numbers

Last night Auburn beat Oregon by a single field goal scored in the final two seconds of the game….and to tell the truth, it was a closer match than those numbers show.

On the subject of numbers, I spent the day listening to Freakonomics on tape while I played with my son and cleaned up a bit. Freakonomics, by award-winning economist Steven Levitt, explores phenomena in our society by applying the data mining and number crunching commonly used in economics.

What I find refreshing about Freakonomics is its approach to research. Levitt doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind. He’s interested in numbers, and follows where they take him. It’s so rare anymore to see somebody ask a question without already having an answer in mind.  It reminded me of a two-volume history of the Brazilian martial art capoeira a read a while back. A history of Brazil is by nature a history of slavery, but this writer was interested in martial arts. He told the story of slavery with as little political fooforaw as I’ve ever seen on that particular subject.

Another fascinating point in Freakonomics was just how much numbers can tell us. In one example, Levitt explored the effect an ignorant-sounding name has on a person’s life. He found that the name itself has little effect, but having been born to the kind of parent who would give you such a name (typically unmarried, under 20 and poorly educated) has a huge effect. I’m impressed that numbers can split a hair so fine.

Where Freakonomics fails is at the same point where it succeeds. Levitt’s reliance on and fascination with the data helps remove bias from his research. At the same time, it made some of his conclusions feel cold, heartless, even inhuman. Just like last night’s score tells only part of the story from that game, Levitt’s data can only hint at the broad spectrum of the human experience.

Thanks for listening.

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