Book review: Think Like a Freak

Self-help books are one of the best-selling genres in the world.

Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Courtesy Harper Collins
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In a world that is getting more complicated, stressful and anxious for answers, it is no surprise that self-help books are one of the best-selling genres in the world. In the United States alone, $549 million is spent on these kinds of books annually, according to the research firm Marketdata Enterprises.
It is understandable, then, that many intellectually respectable authors, such as the economist Steven Levitt and his partner in crime, the journalist Stephen Dubner, are tempted to tap this gold mine.
Best remembered for their fun work, Freakonomics, which advised its readers to the value of ignoring conventional wisdom and mining data dispassionately to arrive at unorthodox solutions to vexing issues (such as homicides in the US), the duo went on to produce the sequel Superfreakonomics and now Think Like a Freak. In this tome, the authors' "offer to retrain your brain" is reminiscent of the recently published The Art of Thinking Clearly and other more sophisticated self-help books.
However, like the many experts who they criticise in their own work for being blind to other points of view, Mr Levitt and Mr Dubner are convinced that the study of economics is the only way to understand the world and fix its problems. They are dismayed after a meeting with the British prime minister, David Cameron, that he was not impressed by their conclusion that the National Health Service is not economically viable.
In this they betray the emptiness of the conceit that their method is free of the kind of ideological posturing that they find distasteful. For there are other considerations, such as compassion and fairness, that cannot be done complete justice by the free market.
Nevertheless, Think Like a Freak is a well-written and entertaining book, full of interesting advice such as on how to approach eating competitions the right way, why shooting a penalty at the centre of a goal is the best chance of scoring (and not the corners as is statistically more common), as well as other axioms that are the product of turning received ideas on their head.
One piece of conventional wisdom that they might do well to heed to, and I am sure they would find difficult to deny, is "quit while you are ahead". No Think Like a Freak workbooks, please.
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