Monday, September 19, 2005

Cocky Fellows

I imagine my post title might get some interesting google hits. Bring 'em on!

I read Freakonomics. I have to say I was disappointed. It was slight, smug, and cocky, and this from both of the authors.

The economist clearly thought he was imparting something very, very special. But anyone who's ever read Slate's occasional column "The Dismal Science" knows that this is what economics is about--applying the theories of incentives to explain data. And, sadly but often, applying monetary figures to non-monetary transactions. The economist, in analyzing the effects of parenting on children, chose school test scores to measure success. The conclusion he reached is that who your parents are has an effect, but not what they do (so your parents' socioeconomic status and level of education will affect you, but not whether they read to you, talk to you or spank you). Now, at the beginning of this whole argument, he admits that he picked test scores as an indicator just because they're quantifiable and available in large numbers. But by the end of the chapter, he had drawn sweeping conclusions that I suspect would have been shattered if you were able to measure an effect like how happy and well adjusted the children turned out.

Really, it's just that he acted like he was giving me this magical gift of his insight, when really all I felt like he was doing was the tedious work of crunching some interesting numbers for me.

The writer, in the meantime, was using excerpts from an article he wrote about this guy for the NY Times Magazine for epigraphs for each chapter. Not only do I consider that kind of lazy, but the point of each excerpt was not about economics, but about how cool and punk rock this guy is.

My favorite bit of bad writing is in a place where the writer (the guy's name is Stephen J. Dubner) tries to build suspense in a sentence. Check this out. "...are we to assume that mankind is innately and universally corrupt? And if so, how corrupt? The answer may lie in . . . bagels."

Now, check out the use of ellipses there. That's in the original book. He wants to build tension before startling us with his revelation that bagels may hold the key to mankind's corruption. What a cheap way to do it.

The next book I picked up is How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen. I borrowed this from Lynne a while ago and just picked it up. After reading the preface, I almost put it down. The preface was about how he had been defensive about what a jerk everyone thought he was till he went back and looked at his essays of a few years ago and realized what a jerk he was. The way he addressed this subject made him look like a real jerk. But I've been sucked into his essay about the crappy Chicago postal system, and while I still have no desire to read about his theories on the demise of the American novel, the postal system stuff is really interesting.

In sum, cocky, but we'll give him a shot.

1 comment:

Michael said...

The key is that you have to imagine Marc "Unwrapped" Summers reading the line about bagels. In fact, I think that might be a direct lift from an episode of Unwrapped.