It's been almost a decade since journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt took contrarian research mainstream in Freakonomics. Since then, Freakonomics has become an improbable household brand, selling more than five million books and spawning a 2009 sequel, a radio show and a documentary. Now the pair is back with a third book, Think Like a Freak. But this time they're taking a different tack: In a collection of stories that read like modern parables, Mr. Dubner and Mr. Levitt try to teach their approach to problem-solving to the rest of us, with tactics that range from "thinking like a child" to devising incentives for miscreants to reveal themselves. The Globe and Mail spoke to Mr. Dubner from his home in New York.
So what's the essence of thinking like a freak?
The essence is the first word, which is just remembering to think. I think half the things we write about are extrapolations of the baseline command to actually think for yourself instead of operating off of conventional wisdom.
Once you decide you are going to think a little bit more, the essence of thinking like a freak is these set of tools that we think are really helpful. Saying "I don't know," for instance. Why don't people say that they don't know something? It's because they think that somebody's already done the thinking and they know the answer, whereas in fact, five minutes of thinking might reveal that you don't actually know the answer.
Is it possible that the contrarian approach you took in 2005 worked so well it's become conventional wisdom?
Even in 2005 when we said that conventional wisdom isn't all it's cracked up to be, that was far from an original statement. It was Galbraith who used it as a pejorative. Even in the 1930s, it was meant to be an epithet; conventional wisdom was seen as basically an easy, cheap, convenient, comfortable opinion that will almost never hurt people too much, and which people are willing to accept without having to work too hard.
But I will say it does become almost a trope after a while, and we got a little bit sick of it. We didn't want every story we wrote in this book here to be an illustration of "hey, conventional wisdom is wrong." The world is more interesting than that.
How did the third book come about?
Think Like a Freak was actually the third idea for a book we had after Superfreakonomics. We had a totally different idea, that for five days seemed like the best idea on Earth. And then after about five days we realized how deluded we were.
What was it?
It was basically a guide to solving the world's biggest problems – poverty, disease – and coming up with a system of breaking down these problems. And then we thought, what the hell are we talking about?
And then this idea came about pretty organically. We get all these e-mails from people, because we ask people to send us questions, especially since we started the radio show. And they're amazing to read. The most common topics were political dysfunction, education and energy. For a long time we tried to keep up and answer most e-mails. Then we realized we were just sending out dreck. It's impossible. It's just impossible! And so we thought, if we can't answer a small number of these questions even relatively well, what if instead we turned it inside out, and deputized the entire world – anyone who wants to – and give them exactly what we know, and what we do.
The first Freakonomics ventured into politically charged territory. Are there any elements of Think Like a Freak that will get people's hackles up?
I never know, because the things I think might upset people almost never do. We got more angry correspondence from the real estate agents and the realtors' associations than from anybody. It's funny. We wrote about abortion as a causal factor in lowering crime, and we wrote about cheating schoolteachers. But in the real estate case, we were basically saying that most people, when they're real estate agents and they sell a house, they're kind of doing what's in their best interests but not necessarily in yours. To us that seemed like such a no-brainer. But if there's one group of people who hate us enduringly more than any other group, it would be real estate agents. So I have no idea what people will say. We'll find out. What do you think? Any ideas?
Well, one of the suggestions you make early on is to actively ignore your own moral compass. I thought, "Are they trolling us?"
That's interesting, because we did work hard to not make it sound like one should abandon one's morality, or one's own moral compass, but to put it aside as a first step to figuring out what a problem is. People want what they want. We might say, it's wrong for people to want so much soda or cigarettes or beer, or it would be better if people saved more – but for whatever reason, that's the way it is. So you can moralize against that, or you can accept that people want what they want, and then try to work with it. That's the idea.
What's the biggest takeaway you'd like from this book?
The other day for our radio show, we started to make an episode about the chapter about thinking like a child, and we brought in a bunch of kids from a school in Brooklyn who were between 11 and 14.
We got to talking about how chess players, among other groups of people, peak really young. As it turns out, there's a growing body of research that suggests the human mind does a lot of things incredibly well between the ages of late childhood and late adolescence.
I asked these kids, what if I told you that your brain right now, at 13, is almost at its peak power, and that you have another 12 or 15 years where it's just gonna be kicking ass, and then it's going to start to diminish. Once you start to think about that, what would you use your brain to do now, knowing that it's a perishable resource?
That for me was a takeaway I got from the book. I really want to encourage my kids to understand that their brains are not the premature versions of the adult brains. Their brains are the optimal brain. When we say, "think like a child," if you're over 25 or 30, that's the best we can do.
Man, that's sobering.
Yeah, well I'm older than you, so it's even more sobering for me – if it's any consolation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.