Co-authors Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

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The co-authors of the best-selling Freakonomics book series unpack the latest installment, Think Like a Freak.

Described as having one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, Steve Levitt has some notable accomplishments. He became a full professor in the University of Chicago's economics department after only two years and, in 2003, won the John Bates Clark medal, given to the leading U.S. economist under 40. The Harvard grad has explored everything from controversial social issues, such as tying crime rates to abortions, to corruption in sumo wrestling tournaments, and also holds a Ph.D. from M.I.T.

The son of a newspaperman, Stephen Dubner has been writing since childhood—he was first published at age 11 in Highlights for Children. He's worked for The New York Times, The New Yorker and Time and covered crime, politics, the arts and urban affairs. His book titles also include a children's book, The Boy With Two Belly Buttons. As an undergrad, Dubner started a rock band that landed a contract with Arista Records, but quit music to earn an MFA at Columbia, where he taught in the English department.

Dubner and Levitt are co-authors of the Freakonomics series of books, the first of which spent two years on The New York Times best-seller list, has sold more than 4 million copies and was adapted as a film. The latest installment, Think Like a Freak, offers a blueprint for a new way to solve problems.


Tavis: So when a book is called “Freakonomics,” you know you’re not dealing with conventional thinking, to be sure.

Now a University of Chicago economist, Steven D. Levitt, and writer, Stephen J. Dubner, the pair behind that best-selling text which also became a documentary and a radio show and a blog and whatever they want it to be, they’ve written a third text.

It’s called “Think Like a Freak” and everybody’s talking about it. Steven and Stephen, good to have you both on this program.

Stephen Dubner: Great to be here.

Steven Levitt: Thanks.

Tavis: Let me jump in ’cause the best way I’ve discovered – and I’ve read all the stuff you guys have done. And for me as a host, I think the best way to give the audience what’s in this is to just let you talk about what’s in it and the lessons that we can learn about how to think like a freak.

So I want to make room for you to do that and I’ll stay out of the way. But I want to start by asking what are the biases to learning to think like a freak?

Dubner: You know, we’re all biased, right, in many different ways, politically, religiously, ideologically, the way our family raised us, and that’s fine. Nobody wants to live in a world where everybody thinks exactly the same. The key, though, is to try to figure out where your biases are holding you back from solving problems.

So we make the argument that, if you lead with your moral compass always which many of us like to do or with our political compass or whatnot, you’re gonna decide what’s the “right” answer before you even explore and investigate.

And that’s the mistake we’re trying to avoid is for people to step back, put away the moral compass for a minute, learn what you know and what you don’t know, ask good questions. As simple as that sounds, that’s what thinking like a freak really is.

Tavis: I want to come back to that moral compass, ’cause of all the lessons in the book, that’s the one that I want to push back on you all about setting aside that moral compass.

Dubner: Great.

Tavis: You want to add to that, though, Steve?

Levitt: No, I think it’s great. I mean, what we put together is kind of the “magic” in what we do and it turned out not to be that magical [laugh]. It’s pretty common sense. We actually didn’t realize how common sense our approach was until we tried to blow it down.

But things like being willing to admit that you don’t know, that you don’t know the answers, is a starting point for solving problems, and then being willing to act like a child, to think like a child.

So we have a list of a set of tenets which have proven really valuable to us in life and we thought maybe it would be helpful to other people as well.

Tavis: I want to jump in some of those tenets in just a second and let you guys unpack them for me. But let’s start with this one tenet, to your point, Stephen, of setting aside the moral compass.

See, to my mind – and I don’t want to sound like a moralist. But to my mind, part of what’s wrong with our society is that too many people for all kinds of reasons set aside their moral compass in their decision-making and that’s why we’re in the mess that we’re in.

So I take your point, but that kind of – I wanted to push back on that a little bit.

Dubner: I agree with you especially if you’re talking – it depends what realm you’re talking about. When we talk about this, we’re talking about if you have a problem you want to solve, okay?

If you’re talking about, let’s say, the world of high finance, I think a lot of people would argue that they have entirely set aside their moral compass and that does produce a lot of problems. I wouldn’t argue with you there at all.

Our point is this. Let’s say there’s a problem you want to solve, the energy crisis or the energy situation. One example, we didn’t actually include this in the book. We probably should have.

Years ago, there was a strong environmental movement against nuclear power, okay? It coalesced right around the time of the Three Mile Island disaster which turned out not to be as bad as we feared.

But as a result of that kind of fear and environmental push against nuclear power, we basically stopped building nuclear reactors. We let them build them in France and all around the world, our technology, by the way.

And instead, what did we do? We started burning more and more coal. You look at how damaging coal is to the environment, to coalminers, but also the pollution.

You see, if you approach a problem like that from a purely moral stance of we have to protect the environment and nuclear power is bad and you make your conclusion before you know the facts, it might lead you to a worse place which was more coal.

So that’s what we mean. It’s put away your moral compass temporarily what you think you know about an answer is right. Put that aside and find the facts.

Levitt: Yeah. I would say our approach is try to understand how the world works, not how you want the world to work, right?

But we completely agree with you. Once you understand how the world works, then you put the moral compass back in, the moral filter, and say what’s the right thing? So now that I know that nuclear power has a lot of benefits, even though it feels bad, well, how do I trade off this?

Tavis: One of the things I resonated with in the book – and my staff knows this because I’ve told this story a thousand times. My advance composition teacher in high school, Mrs. Otis – hi, Mrs. Otis [laugh]. Back in Indiana, Janet Otis, who was just here in L.A. for a big celebration with me a few weeks ago.

But I learned the lesson the hard way of being called on in class one day in my sophomore year in high school. She asked me a question and I said, “I don’t know.” She looked at me and she said, “You get an F for the day.”

Dubner: Really?

Tavis: “You can redeem this F for today if you come back in tomorrow with the answer.” First, not that it mattered, but I’m a Black kid in an all-white high school basically. This is a white teacher. She’s demanding as much out of me as she is every other white kid in that classroom.

She said to me, “Mr. Smiley, here’s what I want you to say if I ever ask you a question you don’t know the answer. You say, ‘Dr. Otis, I do not know the answer to that question today, but I will know the answer to that question tomorrow.'”

Dubner: Very good, right.

Tavis: I learned that when I was a sophomore in high school. Everybody that works with me knows do not come to me without an answer. If you don’t know when I ask you a question, tell me you don’t know. Tell me you’ll figure it out tomorrow. But you just don’t throw your hands up and say, “I don’t know.”

Dubner: Right.

Tavis: You have a great section in the book about the value of being able to say and being willing to say, “I don’t know.” But, again, that’s so counter-culture. Nobody in our world today, not politicians, not media people, nobody wants to admit and turn to the camera and say, “I don’t know.”

Can you imagine a presidential candidate in a debate just saying, “I don’t know. I’ll look into it. I don’t have my mind made up on it. I don’t know.”

Dubner: I’d vote for that one, for sure. I would personally.

Tavis: But the media would excoriate you for doing that.

Dubner: Well, you just named the two big realms where it never happens, media and politics. And it’s because…

Levitt: And business too.

Dubner: And business, that’s true. You know, one realm where it does happen is the military. In the military, kind of like your teacher, you are trained to say, “I will find out, sir.” Either “I don’t know and I’ll find out.” So, you know, it is just the spirit of inquiry. We argue that, until you admit what you don’t know, you’re never gonna find the real answer.

And we really make the argument that there’s a lot of bluffing and a lot of faking it and a lot of kind of BSing. The reason people do it is because it makes them look good and you can get away with it, frankly. But if you want to really solve problems, learn what you don’t know and say it loud.

Tavis: But Professor Levitt, don’t you think, though, that the audience can see where you really don’t know when you’re talking around and flubbing an answer?

Levitt: No, not so much.

Tavis: You don’t think so? Is the public that dumb?

Dubner: He’s a great liar [laugh].

Levitt: I mean, I teach an MBA sometimes and I have to believe that the primary thing you learn when you go get an MBA is how to fake when you don’t have any idea what’s going on. The whole case approach…

Tavis: And how do you do that successfully? I’m just curious. How do you do it successfully?

Levitt: How do you do it?

Tavis: Yeah.

Levitt: Look the person right in the eye and say with complete confidence, and you just hope that no one’s got Google on their iPhone so they can tell what the real answer is and catch you until you’re out of the room.

Tavis: That’s crazy, though. Think Small?

Dubner: Yeah. You know, we’re surrounded by big problems and people who have been attacking the same big problems for years and years and years and years, and often they’re not getting anywhere.

So let’s say education. This country, we used to be near the top of the world in education. Now we’re kind of down toward the middle at best, right? So there are a lot of reasons for that.

First of all, it used to be that most college-educated women were school teachers. Then, you know, those women went into different fields. But if you look at the whole thing of let’s fix our schools, let’s make them better, a lot of people come up with big, grand plans that are expensive and onerous and very hard to try out.

So we give one example. It’s very small, but this is the kind of thinking we advocate. We write about these guys, economists who went to China and they noticed something very small. You look at all the kids in a fourth or fifth grade class. None of them were wearing glasses. They thought either there’s no myopia here or we should do something.

They tested them, found out a lot of kids needed glasses, set up an experiment. They got some $15 glasses from the World Bank or somebody and those kids that they gave them to did about one year’s worth of school better in a year than the kids who didn’t have them.

Will that solve the entire education problem? Of course not, but what would you rather – this is what we advocate. What would you rather do? Fix a small problem well or answer a small problem well or flail around at the big ones and pay a lot of lip service?

Tavis: Professor Levitt, the other part, one of the things I love about all the books you guys write, this being the third one, is that you always challenge, obviously, conventional wisdom.

And we live in a world, again, where we are always told the value of sticking it out, finishing the project, you know, quitters never win and winners never quit. And you guys say in the text, one of these other pieces of advice about learning to think like a freak, is that you have to appraise to value quitting sometimes.

Levitt: Yes. Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that failure and quitting are the same thing, which is completely wrong. I mean, the real true value, I think, is when you keep on sticking with something and you get old and you say, “Damn, I wish I had done something completely different from that.”

So all of the biases we know from psychology lead people to keep on doing what they’re doing. When you want to quit, you feel the pain today and the benefit in the future.

You avoid the pain, you – so we’ve actually done research. I got 40,000 people to come to a website called Freakonomic Experiments where they would flip a coin to help them decide a big decision. Should I get divorced or should I quit my job?

And people actually followed a coin flip, if you can believe it. They came to this website and they made these big decisions based on that. And what we’re seeing is that quitting is not bad. Quitting is good for most people.

Tavis: Let me ask you right quick before you get out of here. How do we – I love the subtitle. How do we start the process of retraining our brains?

Dubner: Honestly, to retrain your brain, we argue, look, we’re just two guys who work it through and no one should follow what we say as gospel. But there’s a lot of ways.

I think, honestly, the easiest and most important message of think like a freak is simply the first order, which is to think. It is astonishing how easy we can all go through the world – and this is a great thing. We live in a world where you can get by and be pretty happy without thinking ever.

But you know what? Set aside a half hour or an hour to rethink the way you make decisions, the habits you have, the biases you may have.

And if you think of things, if you come with a little bit of a blank slate and be willing to acknowledge what you don’t know and you’d be willing to think like a child, I think it’ll help not only individuals, but society at large.

Tavis: I jump to read everything these guys do because they always challenge me to kind of re-examine my assumptions and expand my own inventory of ideas. And I think the same will happen for you when you pick up the copy of their new book, “Think Like a Freak.”

The authors of “Freakonomics” offer to retrain your brain, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Honored to have you on this program.

Dubner: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Tavis: Thanks for the text. Good to see you.

Levitt: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you, my friend.

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Last modified: July 3, 2014 at 3:38 pm