Freakonomics: Scholarship in the Service of Storytelling

Posted: 29 Feb 2008

See all articles by John E. DiNardo

John E. DiNardo

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: 2006


Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner is certainly popular. Indeed, my search for something comparable took me back more than 120 years. Even with the uncertainty about what constitutes a best seller, it is clear that the book has reached a huge audience, especially for a book about "economics." As I write this, it has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 46 weeks, and having started on the Publisher's Weekly Hardcover Nonfiction best-seller list in the 12th position on April 25, 2005, it has hovered in the top ten thereafter. Moreover, as reported on the Freakonomics web site, the book has garnered a large international audience, and the book is on various "best of" lists. Levitt and Dubner have sought a broad and diverse audience for their collection of stories: Levitt has been on "The 700 Club" (a talk show by conservative businessman and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson) and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (a center-left parody of the news and news reporting) among other places. Both the authors write a column for the New York Times Magazine as well as participate in an active blog (just navigate from the book's web site to the URL where, among other things, they respond to a large number of readers' inquiries). The book comes complete with more than 20(!) pages of references and citations as diverse as a radio talk show caller's unverified claim that her niece was named "Shithead" (pronounced SHUH-teed) as well as Kenneth Arrow's "A Theory of Discrimination" and includes a two-and-a-half page tabulation of average years of mother's education by child's first name. The extensive footnotes should not mislead: Freakonomics does not take its subjects very seriously. In Freakonomics, Levitt's scholarship and the scholarship of others are put in the service of telling a "good story" rather than the other way around. Indeed, if the many reviews of the book are any guide, many find the book "entertaining" even if they felt that "Levitt's only real message is to encourage confrontational questions" (Berg, 2005). One reviewer found the stories so compelling that he went so far as to suggest that "criticizing Freakonomics would be like criticizing a hot fudge sundae" (Landsburg, 2005). 1, 2

Suggested Citation

DiNardo, John, Freakonomics: Scholarship in the Service of Storytelling ( 2006). American Law and Economics Review, Vol. 8, Issue 3, pp. 615-626, 2006, Available at SSRN: or

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