Freakonomics

By ABCTechProd

Sep 29, 2005 7:34pm

Thursday evening

I’ve been working on a fascinating story for World News Tonight, and if you’ll forgive some shameless self-promotion, I hope you’ll watch it Friday night.

ABC has made a contract with the authors of Freakonomics, the best-selling book that applies economic analysis to all sorts of everyday questions: crime, parenting, auto safety, sports, and on and on.

The best part of the assignment, for me, has been talking with the authors. Steve Levitt is a seriously-smart, soft-spoken economist from the University of Chicago; Stephen Dubner is a funny, eloquent writer who was assigned, a few years ago, to write a profile of Levitt for the New York Times Magazine. Reporter and subject are often at odds with each other; these guys ended up collaborating.

They make all these apples-and-oranges connections: Does it really matter if parents read to their children at night, or just have lots of books at home? How is a realtor like an undertaker? Why do most crack dealers still have to live with their mothers? We’ll do stories in coming months on many of these ideas.

The first question we’ve latched onto is: Who’s more honest, teachers or their students? (I hope you’ll get to see the story, but the guys found that on standardized tests, teachers sometimes have surprising incentives to cheat on their students’ behalf. If enough kids do badly, the teachers take the heat.)

The key to what they do is data — reams of it. The Chicago Public Schools gave Levitt the readouts from 700,000 standardized tests, compiled over seven years. He devised a formula that found that in about five percent of the city’s classrooms, teachers were probably altering kids’ answers. The school system went public with his findings, fired cheating teachers to set an example — and cheating dropped about 40 percent.

"What’s wonderful and powerful about data when some like Levitt uses it," Dubner told us, "is that it’s an accumulation of points, data points, which in aggregate form are pretty powerful."

Levitt and Dubner are constantly talking long-distance, working on fresh cases. Levitt says his wife has taken to answering the phone and calling out, "It’s your girlfriend."

– Ned

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