Things I Know 324 of 365: From Freakonomics to freako-not-so-fast

Half my life is an act of revision.

– John Irving

I mentioned the other day how much I enjoy reading the Freakonomics blog. Today, I read this piece from American Scientist by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung who took a deeper look at the work of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and found some easy mistakes.

They took the guys who ask “What’s really going on here?” and asked “What’s really going on here?”

Gelman and Fung aren’t out to discredit Levitt and Dubner. Instead, they are watching the watchmen and point out moments of Freakonomics where Levitt and Dubner miss the mark or fail to ask the next question.

It’s another case of what’s popular not necessarily being what is right.

The piece is interesting for a number of reasons, but appealed to me mainly on the level of helping people to ask good questions. Rather than simply pointing out the problem, Gelman and Fung conclude with a set of recommendations that have direct implications for anyone working to make inquiries into the world and working to make their work accessible to a larger audience:

  • Leave friendship at the door.
  • Don’t sell yourself short.
  • Maintain checks and balances.
  • Take your time.
  • Be clear about where you’re coming from.
  • Use latitude responsibly.

For guidelines to asking good questions and working to craft answers to those questions that show integrity and understanding, this list is a great start. It’s also a reminder to any reader of anything that the iconoclast should be questioned as often as the traditionalist.


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