Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Book Review - Freakonomics - Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, William Morrow $25.95

Freakonomics, immensely popular and critically acclaimed, promises to help us see through the eyes of the most interesting economist today: Steven Levittt. Despite being marketed as a surprisingly interesting book about the normally dull field of economics (as its title suggests), this book offers much more than a new perspective on an old field. Indeed, as Levitt himself admits early on he knows very little (and has very little interest) in economics as currently conceived.

What Levitt and his co-author Stephen Dubner do offer is an integrated and fascinating way of looking at the social sciences. Whether examining crime in cities or baby-naming habits of wealthy and poor parents, Levitt looks at the available data, and draws novel conclusions. The topics he considers are of great interest to all social scientists. Psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists have considered the causes of crime, effects of parenting, and the consequences of drug trafficking, but few have arrived at the incisive and unique conclusions in this book. Levitt’s creative and unique perspective leads the reader to wonder how he became an economist. In an alternate life, Levitt may have been a standup comedian, humorously comparing dealing drugs to working at a fast food joint. In this one, however, Levitt the economist analyzes the financial ledger of a drug dealing gang, and finds amazing similarity with McDonald’s corporate structure.

Following in the footsteps of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and Blink, Freakonomics explains complicated problems with compelling data described in simple and elegant prose. While the conclusions may not always be completely satisfactory (indeed, some are quite controversial) it is impossible not to be fascinated by the approach.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Book Review: The Three-Pound Enigma - Shannon Moffett

The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the quest to unlock its mysteries

By Shannon Moffett $24.95 Algonquin Books

What could be more fascinating than the human brain? In the tradition of Oliver Sacks, Shannon Moffett takes us on a journey to meet the people who study the brain and learn their discoveries. Written as a series of essays, interspersed with little tutorials describing the brain at different periods of development, The Three-Pound Enigma provides a lively, yet meandering, tour through the modern science of the human brain. Rather than describing the facts of the brain in detached and scholarly style, Moffett humanizes the quest for the brain’s secrets by visiting the sundry cast of characters, which include renowned philosopher of the mind, Daniel Dennett, dream researcher Bob Stickgold, and neurosurgeon Roberta Glick.

While this approach may make each individual essay more interesting, ultimately the focus on personal narrative undermines the coherence of the book. The collection thus seems like a series of episodes in a PBS series rather than a unified volume about modern cognitive science. Rather than gently guided from one topic to the next logical step, the reader is awkwardly shuffled from a dream laboratory, to the controversial (and some would say marginal) topic of dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personalities) to the infant field of neuroethics. Despite this flaw, and the weakness of certain chapters relative to others, those who enjoyed Sacks’ Anthropologist on Mars or other popular work on the brain should find this book an engaging read about the fascinating bridge between brain and mind.

Book Review: Fool's Paradise - Stewart Justman

Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology, by Stewart Justman. Ivan R. Dee, September, 2005. $27.50

You have heard of Dr. Phil, you probably have friends who have adopted the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you may have even nodded blandly upon hearing that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Most take the ubiquity of pop psychology for granted, and if the number of books sold is any index of public opinion, many agree with its many principles. Stewart Justman, winner of the PEN Award for his previous book The Seeds of Morality, exposes pop psychology as a corrosive force in American popular culture. Rather than ignoring the clich├ęs of self-awareness and self-affirmation as harmless, Justman traces the history of pop psychology to the utopian movements of the 60’s, and finds a rotten core of self-help rhetoric misappropriated from the civil rights movement. While each self-help book he mentions claims to be the one truth, Justman maintains that each has the same message: Society has robbed you of your authentic self, and only this book (or this charismatic television personality) can help you regain it.

Justman ably skewers the world of pop psychology with comparative references to every main text of the past 30 years. Yet despite his convincing critical analysis, this reader remained curious as to the popularity of pop psychology. Their message of focus on the self and disavowal of all else is ultimately a detriment to the goal of happiness, but what in their message makes it so appealing? Justman’s scorn for the denizens of pop psychology comes at the cost of compassion for their “victims.” His book is thus more of a screed (albeit a witty and eloquent one) and less of the gentle reeducation more appropriate to his goal.

Book review: My Freshman Year - Rebekah Nathan

My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, by Rebekah Nathan. Cornell, September 2005, $24

While the “Ivory Tower” of higher education in American is often faulted for being out of touch with the country around it, it is an open secret among academics that many are similarly out of touch with their own students. In this fascinating ethnography, “Rebekah Nathan” (a pseudonym for Cathy Small, recently unmasked by the New York Sun) relinquishes her job as a professor of anthropology at “AnyU” (actually NAU = Northern Arizona University) and enrolls as a freshman to become one of those students with whom she has shared a campus, but little else.

Engaging yet scholarly, Nathan applies the techniques of anthropological field research to the modern undergraduate experience. Through formal interviews, informal data collection (such as topics of conversations of passersby, and ethnic diversity in a dining hall) and detached observation, Nathan explores college life with the eye of a social scientist, but from the perspective of a student.

While the anonymity of a pseudonym promises juicy details, there were few to be found. Some insights presented in the manner of an objective anthropologist effectively illustrate prevalent trends (such as attitudes towards cheating), but overall this tone undermines the narrative at the heart of the book. Indeed, Nathan is most compelling when relating her own preconceptions as a professor to her new life as a student. From scheduling constraints, to riding the bus system, to balancing difficult required courses with easier electives, the realities of being a college student surprise Nathan and will be a welcome reminder to many readers in the academy. While the book presents a portrait of today’s student in which classes often take a back seat to socializing, jobs, and extracurricular involvement, Nathan’s experience reminds the rest of us to be compassionate. In their shoes, we would be the same way.