freakonomics

I just finished reading Freakonomics for the first time. I know, I’m behind the times. I picked it up out of curiosity (I’ve heard so many things about the book, its authors, and the subsequent podcast) and convenience (it was left by a previous employee in the office I just moved out of, and while I was packing up unwanted books to donate, I set it aside).

One thing that struck me is how often economist Steven Levitt’s self-deprecation is cited as proof of his sincerity and trustworthiness. Everyone is fallible (even economists!) but you can probably trust the guy who’s wise enough to admit it, right?

I won’t play a guessing game on whether Levitt uses self-deprecation cynically, to manipulate readers, or whether he really is that humble a guy. The thing is, either way, there’s just too much of it. My relief and pleasure at discovering an economist who admits he may be wrong was quickly dampened by irritation at the way self-deprecation is used to excuse whatever happens to come next.

It’s possible I’m wrong, and there are a lot of variables involved that are nearly impossible to scientifically measure, and you should do your own research and think critically before making up your own mind, but…I’d posit that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is actually a documentary. Cats are secretly in control of the White House. And we all live in a computer program called The Matrix.

Obviously, admitting my potential error before I drop these theories makes them no less ridiculous. But the example above illustrates how self-deprecation can really be a rhetorical device to persuade someone into hearing out your outlandish theory (“Well, if he admits he might be wrong, he can’t be that nuts — what’s he got to say?”) and also a verbal insurance policy (“You can’t hold me to that, I told you up front I might be wrong!”).

My question is: does that verbal insurance policy really cash out? Is “I told you I might be wrong” actually a good defense for sharing a theory that may not be completely sound, but may spread disinformation or encourage bad policy? (I’m done picking on poor Levitt now, and just wondering generally — though some of his more famous theories may be grouped by some readers in that category.) It’s actually a close cousin to an infamous tabloid journalism trick — start a statement with “rumor has it” and you’ve admitted the following report may not be totally factual, but most readers who remember it will just remember the claims in the story, not the qualifier that they may not be true.

I still enjoyed Freakonomics for its refreshing and unusual take on a variety of interesting subjects. I hope Levitt continues to do his work of overturning common wisdom and examining topics other economists consider beneath them. I just wonder if he, and other fans of his favorite rhetorical device, realize there are limits to a “I might be wrong” insurance policy.