Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Freakonomics (2010)

We tend to assume causation where there is none.  There may very well be correlation, but it’s possible that both things have a common cause.  It’s also possible that both things are totally unrelated.  There’s an entire Web site dedicate to this premise.  Freakonomics is a documentary that shows a few examples of this.  There was a case where polio was believed to be linked to ice cream, as both tended to spike during the summer.

The first segment deals with the effect that a child’s name may have on their future.  In one case, a child lived up to an unfortunate name.  In another example, brothers Winner and Loser proved to be the opposite of their names.  The truth is that names tend to be a reflection of your parents and your surroundings.  True, ethnic-sounding names do put you at a disadvantage for jobs and housing.  However, if you have the kind of parent that puts effort into your name, you have the kind of parent who will put effort into other things.

The second segment deals with corruption in sumo wrestling.  The sport is supposed to be pure, but there are incentives to throw a match if it’s believed that there’s some benefit.  Wrestlers get paid extra if they have a certain record.  If two wrestlers go up against each other and one needs the win whereas the other doesn’t, the wrestler needing the win tends to win the match they need more often than they should.  Statistically, it looks like players are throwing matches.   (It turns out that this is, indeed, the case, as several former players have come forward stating as much.)

The third segment shows a correlation between abortions and crime rates.  In a country where women were required to have unwanted children, the crime rate went up 15-20 years later.  Similarly, 15-20 years after Roe v. Wade, the United States had a corresponding decrease in crime.  While this hasn’t been proven conclusively, the theory is that unwanted children tend towards crime more than wanted children.  The authors of the book point out that this isn’t an endorsement of abortion.  They’re simply pointing out that if a woman can wait until she’s ready to be a mother, it helps the children later in life.

The final segment is on attempting to bribe ninth-grade students to do better in school.  The segment is set up with a story about one of the authors rewarding his daughter only to have her game the system.  Two students in particular are followed; the experiment works with only one of the two students.  The results for this one are inconclusive.  (If a student is doing so poorly that they’re already talking about a GED, is $50 per month really going to motivate them?)  The point here seems to be that an economic incentive isn’t always the best thing, especially later in life.  Is it better to motivate them earlier?  Is it better to use other means?  If offered the money, I’m not sure I would have done much better in school.  Most kids tend to live for the here and now.

The movie is interesting.  I watched it having read the book already.  I didn’t really expect anything new.   In some regards, you may be better off reading the book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.  There are more chapters and each goes into more detail.  If you have already read the book, you’re probably not going to find many surprised here.  The segments are based on chapters of the book.

However, if you have the ability to rent or stream the movie, it is interesting.  It gives a basic look at some areas that you might not otherwise think about.  The movie is geared towards an adult audience, but most teenagers should be able to grasp the basic contents.

The PG-13 rating comes from some of the language and a few violent scenes.  If I recall, most of the violence depicted was in the third section, which dealt more with violent crimes.  There was also a scene of a strip club with strippers’ names covering their otherwise bare breasts.  That’s the only scene I’d be embarrassed to watch with my parents.  Much of it is stuff would make for good discussion with your children.  I could almost see this being optional viewing for a college course.  Some of the material is controversial, but I don’t think it would cause anyone’s head to explode.

I was able to get this streaming on Netflix.  I’m not sure that I would necessarily expect or want special features.  As I said, you can get the book for more detail.  There’s also the Web site for Freakonomics, which seems to be for all of the various related media.  It’s definitely worth a watch.

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