Book review – Freakonomics

America’s steady fall in crime – after years of apocalyptic growth – had nothing to do with New York’s “zero tolerance” policing. No, say Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in Freakonomics, it was a direct result of the legalisation two decades earlier of abortion across the USA.

The intriguing cause and effect is one of a handful studied and explained in Freakonomics, which promises to show how economic data can be harnessed to discover all sorts of connections – or refute those commonly, but erroneously made.

Levitt – the economist with a different viewpoint – has worked with Dubner, a journalist who met Levitt when sent to interview him as research for a book about the psychology of money.

Levitt has also proved how school teachers cheat to ensure their classes get better marks, in this eclectic selection of essays that flit from one subject to another. In each case, he takes great pleasure in explaining how the data point him to his conclusion – and why alternative postulations of cause and effect are flawed. In certain instances, he reproduces the evidence for his interpretations, which will probably only be of interest to the serious number crunchers.

The book is an entertaining read, and provides a clearer understanding of what an economist can do, in terms of understanding business issues and interpreting real world data. And, if you are intrigued by the content, there is the by now obligatory website where more fascinating thoughts about data and the world around us are constantly being updated.

And, if the pair leave you wanting more, they have recently been out on tour promoting the sequel, Superfreakonomics.


The best and worst of management blogging

Once upon a time, it was thought a great idea for business leaders to blog – about their vision, about their business, and so on.

Many fell by the wayside, knocked sideways by consumer complaints. There’s no point warbling on about how marvellous the cars you make are, if half of them are in having defective accelerator pedals repaired, for example.

But still, there are some prime examples of the genre, and we’re indebted to Santham Sanghera of the Times in London for drawing our attention to some real howlers in his “survey of the many woeful management blogs out there”. And top of his list is a blog from F. John Reh, and in particular his treatise entitled “The Coffee Cup As a Management Tool”.

Says Santham: “The most extraordinary thing about this posting is simply the idea that anyone should find it necessary to write a 666-word essay advising people on how to have a coffee with a colleague. I was going to say that it serves no purpose at all, but maybe, in a roundabout way, it does, in that it illustrates two important points: some managers really do live on another planet; and most management blogging is incredibly inane.”

More on this – and the runners up – here.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre reviewed

I picked this book up at Smiths in Marylebone station, encouraged by the promise of an irreverent look at scientific claims and the media. It didn’t disappoint.

In a strange way, the content of the book segued rather well with my recent blog comments on experts. I mentioned how easy it seems to be to become an “expert” and get media coverage, and noted what experts were most sought after in 2009 by the UK media.

And it’s very timely, with Andrew Wakefield, the man behind the campaign against the MMR vaccine, censured last week by the General Medical Council; the book has a lengthy discussion of the MMR story.

Goldacre’s book is borne of the very frustration that our UK media has a nasty habit of sensationalising whatever it can get its hands on. And as we are all obsessed by our health, that often means using a survey – however poorly grounded – and taking its results out of context to make a headline.

It reminded me of Richard Hammond’s “Should I Worry About….?” TV programme, which investigated a tabloid claim that farmed salmon was a health hazard because of certain trace elements it allegedly contained. He duely investigated to discover the big headline was hardly backed by solid evidence.

Bad Science doesn’t just have a pop at poor journalism, he also blames sloppy research for delivering unbalanced source material in the first place. And he points out that the pharmaceutical industry is no worse than TV diet and health food “experts” – except the latter normally refute any challenge to their affirmations with bluff and bluster.

All of this could be avoided, says Goldacre, if medical and research folk made more effort to communicate clearly, and journalists took more trouble to investigate and write balanced stories. But in the UK today, the power of the hyped headline is much more exciting.

The book’s style, while it does go into some detail in places, is full of entertaining asides that reminded me of Willie Rushton’s Superpig – his antidote to Shirley Conran’s infamous volume and one of my all-time favourites.

And there is a serious message. These bandwagons can have significant negative effects; Goldacre reckons that the hoohaa over the MMR vaccine and possible links with autism was based on a flawed logic. But as a result, he says, many thousands have missed the benefit of vaccination.

For the seriously interested, there’s a website – – where further frustrations are aired on an ongoing basis.

Yet another foul-up by the DVLA

Don’t you just love the DVLA. They’re supposed to ensure that all the vehicles in the UK are legally owned – thus helping the police to ensure that they are road legal with an MOT test, and insured should they crash into us.

That their systems are shot through with holes is evident by the recently popular “fly on the wall” police programmes in the UK, which regularly show footage of the police stopping folk without insurance, or without the required MOT test.

Last night, BBC’s Inside Out programme revealed a fresh round of breathtaking incompetence. The DVLA disposed of a load of V5 documents (or log books) but instead of making sure they were shredded or incinerated, allowed them to get unmarked into the hands of some sharp operators who are now using the documents to make fake identies for stolen cars. Which unsuspecting punters then buy. And the plods subsequently come around, take back the car and return to the rightful owner – and then try to charge the out of pocket car buyer with handling stolen goods!

The DVLA’s action to solve the matter? They’ve listed the serial numbers of the stolen papers on their website.

I’m even more troubled by their behaviour, as I am now being fined by the DVLA. Back in March 2009 I sold a car,  filled in the V5 document and returned it to Swansea as required. I heard no more until the autumn when they sent me a notice to relicence it – which I alerted the new owner to. Then, I get a fine because I allegedly didn’t tell them of the change of ownership. In effect, I am being fined for trusting the Royal Mail to deliver a letter.

And trusting the Royal Mail is not a defence. Apparently I should have looked out for an acknowledgement letter four weeks after posting, and if it did not arrive, then I should have contacted the DVLA. It’s apparently all explained – on the piece of paper I had already mailed to them.

So, if you’re buying a second hand car, be sure to check the DVLA website to make sure your car’s V5 document is not one of the stolen thousands!

And if you have any dealings with the DVLA, always ensure any mail you send them is tracked with proof of receipt!