Just the tonic: Freakonomics

If you’re one of those slightly geeky nutters who loves a documentary that throws up some of the most fascinating uses of statistics in popular culture you’ve ever seen, or a film about corruption in sumo wrestling and naming children for success, then you’re in luck. Twice.

I’ll admit, I’m a hardcore statistics junkie, and my family work in economics and finance, so I’ve grown up with an interest in the variety of numbers around us in terms of personal finance and the economy and what they mean. But until recently, I was convinced that Freakonomics was that odd book about proving weird things with abortion statistics.

It’s now an odd documentary about proving weird things with abortion statistics, but in this case, the things economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner talk about are actually very real – notably that the high abortion rate in the 1970s lowered crime in the 1990s.

Each study, and there are five (or six if you include the short one used as an introduction to the field of economical statistics and its use in investigative journalism), is directed by an established documentarian, such as Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock. Each case is presented differently, using devices from live-action interviews to moving infographics and animation.

All of them become more enjoyable to watch as their themes take hold, both artistically and factually. It’s an incredible experience to have your mind opened to the idea that Japan’s 96% solved-murder-case rate isn’t what it seems, or that sumo wrestlers are actually above the law to a rather chilling degree. Levitt and Dubner often weigh in during these segments, and they’re an entertaining team, each clearly bouncing off the other’s ideas.

Levitt is obviously the brains of the two, and the driving force behind some of the amazing revelations he manages to make. You may find some of these controversial, but the way in which they’re presented is never intrusive and never patronising, and certainly never arrogant or cocksure. This should help to mitigate the impact that some of the bold statements made in the 90 minutes or so of Freakonomics may have on highly opinionated viewers.

It’s hard to refute a lot of their arguments, however, and they make sure that each statistic and line of thinking is never too difficult to grasp. Whether you’re a lover of numbers or you grab for a calculator at the sight of a shopping list, you’re likely to feel much more in-the-know about some of the basics of economics in the marketplace, such as the concept of incentive. How does he explain it? Using his three-year-old daughter, potty training, and M&Ms. Utter genius and very amusing.

It also answers a lot of common debates, for example, whether or not naming a child Todd or Tyrone makes a difference to their job prospects. But realistically, some of this we know anyway – it’s just nice to have it confirmed by two well-read gentlemen who are a little less hard-hitting and hypocritical than Michael Moore.

Hopefully, Freakonomics will spawn a new age of documentary film, although the art of yanking out a book on politics or the economy and turning it into a documentary isn’t new – see Michael Moore’s entire career. However, it is important for the sake of our poor neglected brains that these films gain attention, as much, if not more than the latest 3D CGI action-blockbuster.

They probably won’t kick off a revolution, but they certainly will entertain those who want to have their minds shifted into high gear for an hour and a half, and to walk away with a new perspective on the bewildering array of statistics we have available to us, but we never choose to pursue. If we did give stats a chance, we might discover something truly amazing. Until then, I’ll stick with Levitt and Dubner, hopefully for Superfreakonomics, too.

Freakonomics is available:
on iTunes as an exclusive Christmas download on 20th December, 2010

and is out on DVD on January 3rd 2011

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