Allen lane, £12.99. Order at £10.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
Think Like a Freak: How To Think Smarter About Almost Everything! by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, book review
The Freak series returns, this time as a guide to making good decisions
This third book in the Freak series differs from the bestselling Freakonomics and Super-freakonomics: here, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner are prescriptive. They quote George Bernard Shaw – "Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation by thinking once or twice a week."
Too many people, they say, are too busy to spend any time thinking. But they should. And although there isn't a right or wrong way to think about solving a problem, what is important is to depend on data – facts and figures – and also to understand how the world works in order to make decisions, rather than relying on prejudices, biases, or running with the herd. This is music to my ears, having previously spent years in Whitehall advocating evidence-based policies rather than policy-based evidence.
But what is evidence? There is so much in life which isn't clear and which does not allow us to make the right decision or even any decision at all. Data is often partial and incomplete, prone to manipulation and frequent revisions. Worse, it is frequently presented as solid and irrefutable, which it rarely is. Many of the current big debates in the UK fall into this refutable category – should we stay in Europe, how to best deal with climate change, HS2, airport expansion. In many cases, we just don't know –and as the authors say, we find it very hard to admit this. Levitt and Dubner marvel at how little information people have on which to base decisions, including the hugely important ones, such as what job one should do. Surely, evidence in terms of career paths, earnings and indicators of job satisfaction should all be out there. And yet we know it often isn't.
So most people make decisions based on incomplete data, prejudices, their environment or peer and family pressure. Moreover, because they often have little idea of the impact, or import, of their choices, they leave others to make decisions for them. The authors describe how, in a controlled experiment, and with the agreement of those involved, dilemmas were resolved with the toss of a coin to such questions as: "Shall I leave my girlfriend?" . A considerable percentage accepted a random outcome and professed themselves to be happy with the choice that was made for them!
The book's coverage of issues is wide – from how to win a hot dog eating competition to an analysis of how the Nigerian email scam works and how to flush out potential terrorists. My favourite chapter heading asks: "What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth (the rock frontman) have in common?"
But it is a difficult book to like for its complacency and gimmicky nature. Their definition of "thinking like a freak" reads like something out of Private Eye's "Pseuds Corner": "The modern world demands that we all think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally; that we think from a different angle, with a different set of muscles, with a different set of expectations; that we think with neither fear nor favour, with neither blind optimism nor sour scepticism. That we think like – ahem – a Freak.''
The easiest way to deal with this book is to accept the authors' semi- serious suggestion that it could be viewed as a "self-help" book on how to make decisions and get better outcomes.
For all the book's failings, the authors redeem themselves in my eyes by recounting a very amusing encounter with David Cameron, who they met just before the last election and who "looked to be exactly the sort of man whom deans at Eton and Oxford envision when they are first handed the boy". As they questioned the cost of some of his strongly-held pet projects, "the smile did not leave David Cameron's face but it did leave his eyes".
Vicky Pryce's book, 'Greekonomics' is out in paperback (Biteback)
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 3 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove