Best-selling author Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics co-author explains the concept that correlation does not equal causation.

The son of a newspaperman, Stephen Dubner has been writing since childhood. The award-winning writer is co-author of SuperFreakonomics—the sequel to the best-selling Freakonomics, which sold more than four million copies and has been adapted as a film—and blogs in The New York Times. He's covered crime, politics, the arts and urban affairs and is a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. As an undergrad, Dubner started a rock band that landed a recording contract, but quit music to earn an MFA at Columbia, where he also taught in the English department.

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Tavis: Stephen Dubner is the co-author of the best-selling book, Freakonomics, and its follow-up, SuperFreakonomics. The next installment of the series will be out later this month called SuperFreakonomics: Illustrated Edition. The first book has spawned a new film, though, that is now playing in select theaters. Here now a scene from Freakonomics.
[Clip]
Tavis: (Laughter) Stephen Dubner joins us tonight from New York. Stephen, good to have you back on the program, sir.
Stephen Dubner: Great to be here. Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: I’m not sure I need to ask this question, given that clip, but let me ask anyway. So creatively, how do you take the book, Freakonomics, and turn it into a movie?
Dubner: Well, I agree and I disagree, as my friend Urale (sp) King there says. Well, let us not claim too much credit. So basically, this film which is called Freakonomics, my co-author, Steve Levitt and I, we didn’t have that much to do with making it. We’re in it, we appear in interviews where we kind of set up the different segments.
But what’s interesting about it is the producer, a fellow named Chad Troutwine, had the idea that this book, Freakonomics, is kind of, you know, as we’ve always described it, a book about nothing. Just all these different stories that don’t really have anything in common except the way that we look at the world.
So he followed that lead and hired a bunch of different film documentary directors, very, very good directors, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Eugene Jarecki, Rachel Ewing, Heidi – oh, gosh. I’m so sorry. I always mess – Rachel and Heidi who made a great film called Jesus Camp. And he gave each of them the opportunity to make a short piece on their own put together.
So we were involved a little bit kind of as producers, but mostly this reflects the hard work of people who know how to do this.
Tavis: So how does a book and ostensibly now a film about nothing help us rethink our view of the world, challenge us to re-examine the assumptions we hold and expand our inventory of ideas?
Dubner: Well, the cornerstones of what we did with the first book and then with SuperFreakonomics and continue to do are exactly the same, which is be willing to challenge conventional wisdom, okay? We know that conventional wisdom arises because somebody has a strong incentive to make it arise, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right. The other thing is, understand how incentives work. Incentives aren’t just money. There are financial incentives, there are moral incentives.
I think what’s really interesting in the film clip that you saw, this kid whose name is Urale (sp) King in Chicago Heights, Illinois, he wanted nothing more than to complete the coursework and get his $50 bucks and maybe win a ride in the limo. But you know what? It was a lot harder than that because the incentive of $50 bucks was far enough out in the future that he couldn’t really make it happen.
So you have to try to – you struggle really hard to experiment, to find out what kind of incentives are gonna work on people, whether it’s students, whether it’s in medicine, things like that. So even when people might seem to have a strong self-interest in doing something for themselves, it can be harder to accomplish than you think. So those are the kind of riddles we try to look at, Tavis.
Tavis: To your point now about people, this book has been around long enough and has had enough success that it’s impacted people not just in this country, but indeed around the world. I suspect the film version will do the same thing. What have you learned, what can you share with me, about the way we see the world connected to Freakonomics that might be different in how others see the world? Does that make sense?
Dubner: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I just had a conversation a few minutes ago with a young guy, a researcher, who was talking to me about the difference in what are called leadership qualities among Asians and Americans. So he was trying to look at the people who get promoted in American firms of all different backgrounds and so on.
You know, what are the characteristics that lead to their promotion? So is it racial prejudice that happens? Is it some kind of cultural difference? So this was a case where literally the language and the leadership style of the Asian Americans in his sample was very different than the Anglo Americans in his sample. So that was a big factor in deciding who’s actually gonna get to the leadership of a big corporation.
But I think what we do is essentially universal, which is to try to figure out – you look at a particular scenario. It might be parenting, it might be Suma wrestling, it might be cheating in baseball or cheating school teachers, and try to figure out what are the incentives, how do they influence peoples’ behavior and then, most valuably, how can you use that wisdom to make the world a little bit better place?
You know, Levitt and I have been at this for a few years now and we’re happy that we’ve been successful with it. But really, we feel it’s time for us now to take it up a notch and to try to instead of just looking at the world and describing it and describing problems that we want to try to contribute some of what we’ve learned to actually solving problems. So that’s really the next step for us.
Tavis: To your point now about taking what you’ve learned and helping to solve problems, you spoke earlier and kind of deconstructed the notion of incentives, but what does this film potentially say to us? What can we learn about the relation between cause and effect?
Dubner: Well, cause and effect is actually the name of one of the pieces in the film which is by Eugene Jarecki, which looks at the relationship between the legalization of abortion and the crime rate to follow a generation later. It’s a fascinating topic; it’s a fascinating piece in the film because very, very often we confuse cause and effect.
Here’s what happens. Any social scientist will tell you, correlation does not equal causation, okay? Correlation, two things moving along together, it’s very tempting to say that one necessarily causes the other. So if I didn’t know better, I’d go outside today and it’s raining really badly and everybody’s got an umbrella. And if I didn’t know better, I’d think, “Oh, those umbrellas are causing the rain. If only people would put the umbrellas away, the sun would come out.” So that’s a simple case.
But more complex cases to tease out what’s actually causing what is very tricky. We look also in the film briefly that polio was this horrible disease in large part because, well, it was crippling and it was a terrible disease, but also it was a mystery. It was unknown what caused it, how it happened.
The other thing was, it spiked during a particular time of year, which was summertime. Well, you know what else spiked during summertime was the consumption of ice cream. So for a time, it was thought that ice cream caused polio. They were correlated, but plainly not causal.
Tavis: Let me ask you in the time I have left here to set aside your producer hat, your author hat, and address something that I think people are fascinated by and that is this notion of branding.
If you and Levitt have done anything, you’ve done well taking this title, this notion of freakonomics, and obviously with a movie and with other books and illustrated version and now Freakonomics Radio, talk to me about what we can learn from what you all have been able to do successfully around the notion of branding your work.
Dubner: I’m probably the world’s worst person to ask this question only because it took me about three years to even be able to get the word “branding” out of my mouth, like the Freakonomics brand because it felt too presumptuous to say that. Honestly, most of the good things that have happened to us have happened kind of by accident. We just tried to mostly keep our heads down and do work that’s interesting to us and hope it’s interesting to other people.
I will say this, though. There have been a lot of opportunities to, as they say, exploit the brand, and I think the vast majority of them, we passed on. So this film, it’s kind of surprising to us that it got made because a lot of people wanted to make a film and we weren’t interested. Chad Troutwine, the producer, and these directors came on; they were the right people to do it.
We have a very, very, very simple criteria for the work that we do. We’ve got to enjoy it, it’s got to tickle our intellect in some way, and it’s got to provide value, some kind of value.
And that word value is kind of like an incentive. It might be financial value or it might be psychic value. I might write a book because, you know, I’m excited that my kids might be interested in the topic. So really, we have a very, very kind of low-tech way of approaching branding. It might seem like we’re together and organized.
We are launching this public radio show this month, which I’m thrilled about. I love public media. I love doing radio, but if I were to say that there’s a branding strategy here, I’d be lying to you, Tavis.
Tavis: Well, we should all be so lucky to not have a strategy (laughter) and to have our project blow up the way Freakonomics has, but I digress. It’s blown up now to the point of being a movie in select cities now, expanding in cities across the country, I’m sure, in the days and weeks to come.
Stephen Dubner, co-author of the first hit book, Freakonomics, along with his partner, Mr. Levitt. Stephen, good to have you on. All the best to you.
Dubner: Thank you so much, Tavis. Good to hear.

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Last modified: May 11, 2014 at 10:29 pm