Freakonomics authors Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt reveal some of the 'magic' of their problem-solving techniques in new book

Think Like A Freak explains how the average non-economist might approach problems and is full of common-sense instructions

Early in their latest book, Think Like A Freak, Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt introduce their readers to a rare but wonderful term: "Ultracrepidarianism, or 'the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one's own knowledge or competence'."

It's a risky topic for the authors of Freakonomics, who could be accused of displaying ultracrepidarian tendencies themselves, after eschewing the strictly economic analyses of their earlier mega best-sellers to publish what is more or less a self-help tome.

Think Like A Freak explains how the average non-economist might approach problems, so as to reach the sort of counterintuitive conclusions that characterised 2005's Freakonomics, which linked plummeting crime rates to the legalisation of abortion; and 2009's follow-up, SuperFreakonomics, which explained why terrorists rarely have life insurance policies.

The new book is full of common-sense instructions: tackle small problems, not vast ones; identify a problem's root cause, not just the symptoms; don't be too proud to quit. It's illustrated with colourful stories, such as how a slim Japanese man became a world champion hotdog eater; how Chinese schoolchildren's grades were improved not with teaching reforms, but with free eyeglasses; and why David Lee Roth, of Van Halen, and King Solomon were both game theorists.

"After the first book," says Levitt, "we believed people wanted great stories built on economics, and that they would love stories about problems that were material to the future of the world, like climate change and terrorism. But after the second book, we realised that wasn't it: what people really loved about us was that we had a different way of approaching the world, and we were problem-solvers. The point of this book was to say: let's show them how the magic works."

In the decade since they published their debut, the publishing genre that Dubner and Levitt pioneered – let's call it story-based social science – has become increasingly crowded. Several critics have suggested that the Freakonomics brand has outstayed its welcome, with one comparing Think Like A Freak to "the sound of scraping the bottom of a barrel Malcolm Gladwell has already rummaged through". But the authors are unperturbed.

"Nobody likes everything, and the more public you get the more you have to deal with that," Dubner says. "I sometimes look at negative criticism to see if it's helpful, but whatever we do next is not going to be determined by some cranky journalist who says we should stop for whatever reasons he might have – including that maybe he wants us to get off the stage so that he can get on."

Counterintuitive conclusions: The mega-best-seller 'Freakonomics' Counterintuitive conclusions: The mega-best-seller 'Freakonomics'
Dubner and Levitt first met as interviewer and subject when Dubner was a journalist for the New York Times and Levitt an iconoclastic economist at the University of Chicago. Today they preside over a Freakonomics empire of films, podcasts, public speaking and private consultancy. Dubner is talkative and enthusiastic, Levitt thoughtful and somewhat more subdued. They both wear expensive-looking designer specs, the only visible fruits of their vast success.

Asked to name a measurable impact that their work has had on the real world, they merely shrug and point to the post-Freakonomics boom in undergraduate economics students. When pressed, Dubner also mentions that they once called on New York City to introduce a dog DNA database in order to track down on dog owners who failed to scoop their pooch's poop. The plan was eventually taken up – not in New York, but in Petah Tikva, a town near Tel Aviv in Israel.

Ridding urban streets of the scourge of dog faeces may be an admirable goal, but the two men also have loftier aspirations. Before writing Think Like A Freak, Levitt co-founded a group of big thinkers called The Greatest Good, with a view to tackling major global problems such as obesity, addiction and access to clean toilets in the developing world.

"The idea was to come up with a list of the 50 biggest problems that we might actually be able to solve," he explains. "Many billionaire philanthropists are bullied by society or by other billionaire philanthropists into saying they'll give away a large chunk of their money, but they don't have a vision. We thought this white paper would be something we could put in front of them and say, 'Here's 50 solvable problems', and they could choose which ones to work on."

Levitt says that he had hoped that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might run for the US Presidency and use the list as a manifesto. Another politician who took note of Freakonomics was David Cameron, who once solicited the authors' advice.

Book review: Think Like a Freak: How To Think Smarter About Almost Everything!

In the first chapter of Think Like A Freak, Dubner and Levitt recall a meeting with the then British Opposition leader shortly before the 2010 general election. After a pleasant afternoon at Conservative HQ, the pair were introduced to Mr Cameron, who, Dubner says, told them: "I'm about to get elected, the budgetary situation is crap and I have to look for something to cut. But there are some things I won't cut, like the NHS."

Misjudging the chummy atmosphere, the two men suggested that perhaps the health system wasn't such a special case after all, and that a Cameron government ought to consider treating it like any other overspending department – like transport, for example. Cameron, they write, "offered a quick handshake and hurried off to find a less ridiculous set of people with whom to meet". And yet, Dubner says now, "The irony is, he has cut the NHS!"

Levitt first learned to think "like a freak" as an economics postgraduate. "In graduate school I was on a constant hunt for interesting ideas and I became attuned in a very predatory way: I'd look at everything and ask myself, 'could that be an economics paper?'" He found his pet subject – crime – after long hours spent watching the reality show Cops. "Criminology journals always gave me enormous amounts of ideas," he says, "because criminologists asked lots of really interesting questions, but they didn't approach them the same way that an economist would."

Reading the new book, one might assume that thinking "like a freak" is only effectual when applied to small but identifiable problems – such as how to eat a lot of hotdogs very quickly. But Levitt disagrees. "With huge, complex problems, nobody ever makes progress by taking on everything at once. The story of the eyeglasses for schoolchildren in China is a perfect example of how if you take a problem that's big, like education, but you carve out a small piece, you can still have an enormous impact – even though you've only tackled 2 per cent of the problem. Two per cent of something huge is better than no per cent."

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?