If you ask me why this book was a best seller, I would say it is because of the power of the ideas contained in the book. For example, one of the amusing facts put forth by the book is that a lot of seemingly silly and unanswerable questions, if supported by the right tools to analyze the available data, seem to bring the reader to terms with the path breaking ground realities of the modern world - that everything is a game of ‘incentives’; make the right moves and you can get things done.
The wide range of topics covered in this book, like ‘Why do drug dealers still live with their moms’, ‘Where have all the criminals gone’, ‘Why do school teachers and Sumo wrestlers have in common’, ‘Why is the Ku Klux Clan Like a group of Real-Estate agents’, ‘What makes a perfect parent’, ‘Perfect Parenting, Part II; or Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet’ etc. seem silly or even puzzling at first look. But a closer look at these questions and their answers seems to emphasize the applicability of economics in our everyday lives, though the authors (or some of their critics) don’t fully agree that what they have been working on is actually economics. All these topics seem a little out of the way, and not many would expect a clear answer to any of them. And more often than not, the real reason for occurrence of an event would go beyond its direct and immediate cause and surface only under rigorous analyses. But the authors have succeeded in constructing a stable castle of ‘data’ to support their premises. One of the best things about this book is that the authors have cared very little for the so-called conventional wisdom and tried to analyze the available data with a critical and inquisitive outlook. Data does never lie, but as the authors have rightly mentioned, you could ‘trick’ the data into revealing the truth. And the way you manipulate the available data makes a whole lot of difference.
To say the least, this book is based on the following fundamental ideas (as pointed out by the authors themselves):
- Incentives are the corner stone of modern life
- The conventional wisdom is often wrong
- Dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle causes
Another important topic discussed in the book is ‘information asymmetry’. This, according to the authors, is one of the major reasons why we are prone to being tricked by the people like the real estate agents and car sellers. They tend to use the information ‘they have and we don’t have’ to their advantage and we end up being a loser. Obviously, the advent and emergence of internet has played a major role in reducing this ‘information asymmetry’, but still, it is not an easy job trying to figure out the correct set of data that could help us answer our questions from a pool of infinite data available on the internet. So if availability of data is not a problem now-a-days, analysing them is, at least as far as a layman is concerned. Also, in some cases, the hype around certain things tends to create a virtual black box and makes people overlook the actual issue. They tend to get carried away in the propaganda surrounding the issue. This is the case with the marketing strategies, media hypes etc. The book clearly attempts to align the reader in this direction and tries to make him wary of such situations.
Whether you agree with the ideas in this book or not, but it is surely a compelling read. The data analyses are just about enough to make your reading enjoyable. They have not overdone it or underdone it; the reasoning, the analyses and the data are just right to make it convincing, but at the same time, the authors have made a conscious effort not to cram the book with a lot of boring jargons and economic data. And that’s something you can definitely be happy about when an economist (Steven Levitt) and a journalist (Stephen Dubner) co-authors a book. Don’t miss it; it is indeed a roller coaster ride.