Freakonomics Authors Speak at Colgate

Alexander Golden

On Friday, April 13 economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, authors of The New York Times best-seller Freakonomics, came to Colgate as the first speakers in the Global Leaders Lecture Series. The lecture series, established by this year’s Senior Class Gift, is intended to bring to Colgate speakers who will expose students to important issues and unorthodox thinking outside of the classroom. Levitt and Dubner’s lecture, however, was made possible largely by the Parents’ Fund.

The lecture in Reid Athletic Center began ominously when Dubner asked an embarrassing question: how many in the audience did not wash their hands in a public restroom? Three or four people actually raised their hands, a number that Dubner explained was unusually high.

“I can also tell that many of you are lying,” he said.

How did he know? First, the very public way the data was collected: by a show of hands. People will not readily admit to an embarrassing practice in public because of how it will affect the opinion others hold of them.

Dubner also has first-hand knowledge: he actually observed hand-washing in airport restrooms. On a good day, some 60 percent of people wash their hands.

The anecdote was very much in the spirit of Levitt and Dubner’s book. One’s method of collecting data, they said, is itself data and should be considered when one draws conclusions.

In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner try to guess what data is not collected. The questions they ask and answer are posed through the lens of economics, meaning they examine what incentives exist for certain behavior. To an economist, incentive is everything. The audience members had an incentive not to tell people they don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom.

Dubner told the story of how he and Levitt came together to write Freakonomics. Levitt then shared the story of how he became an economist despite his sub-par math skills.

Dubner returned to the theme of collecting data with a story about a psychological experiment called the Dictator Game that can prove people are both altruistic and thieves.

In the Dictator Game, a participant gets ten dollars, and is given the option of giving some to another participant who gets zero. On average, people leave three dollars. A researcher named John Liss tweaked the experiment and gave people a new option: the other person gets ten dollars and the real participant can steal from the participant. Under these conditions, more people gave zero to the other participant. Dubner attributed the difference to a bias in the data collection method.

Levitt shared tales about his work as a corporate consultant whose clients tend to ignore his advice, save for one — a prostitute.

The audience members seemed to enjoy themselves. During a question-and-answer session, the audience asked questions that mainly related to the book, including the famous conclusion about legalized abortion correlating to a reduced crime rate in the United States.