I’ve recently read both The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, and Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The books are very similar in that they’re short, but packed full of fascinating information relating to everyday life that goes completely against conventional wisdom1. Malcolm Gladwell is a self-described psychology nut who writes for The New Yorker magazine. Steven Levitt is a groundbreaking ecomonist who isn’t interested in recession, stock markets or tax law; he prefers to investigate less abstract questions, such as why crack dealers still live with their mothers, which parenting ‘methods’ actually produce higher test grades, or whether estate agents are really screwing over their clients. Gladwell is very similar, investigating topics such as the educational techniques of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, the sudden spread of Hush Puppies footwear from forgotten brand to the height of fashion and the remarkable effectiveness of Paul Revere’s famous night ride (a similar ride in another direction resulted in almost no effect).
A large portion of both books is devoted to the unexpected drop in crime witnessed in the USA during the 1990’s. Gladwell investigates the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing instigated in New York. This strategy was based upon the concept of cracking down on seemingly insignificant crimes, such as avoiding paying for subway tickets, or breaking windows, on the basis that an environment in which laws are regularly broken begets higher levels of crime. Violent crime in New York fell 50% from 1994 to 2004. Gladwell relates this to the concept of the Tipping Point – the now commonplace idea that ideas (or memes) reach a point at which they ‘tip’ and subsequently increase exponentially.
Freakonomics looks at the overall fall in crime over the entire USA. At a time when sociologists were predicting horrific growth in all types of crime, the overall crime rate suddently decreased, and kept falling. In a unsurprisingly controversial proposition, Levitt convincingly argues that this is in large part due to the legalization of abortion. The Roe vs. Wade supreme court decision twenty years prior to the beginning of the crime drop, he says, meant that children likely to become criminals were simply not born.
These two theories seem to be at odds. Was the drop in New York crime due to ‘broken windows’, or was it simply part of a nationwide trend? This is where I love the Internet. It turns out that both authors have blogs – Malcolm Gladwell has his own, while the Freakonomics blog is devoted to the book and related topics, with daily posts by the authors. Back in March the two blogs discussed the links between the books. Malcolm Gladwell posted his thoughts on Freakonomics’ take on ‘broken windows’, Levitt & Dubner responded on their site, then Gladwell looked at their arguments. It turns out that the two ideas actually complement each other reasonably well.
I think this is great. The problem with these kind of books is that subsequent research can change opinions, or send the books’ ideas spinning off in unexpected directions, but you’d never know unless you had a particular interest in the industry. A corresponding blog, with authors who care enough to post regularly, helps the book to remain relevant as well as providing fascinating new information. It’s the future, and I like it.
- ‘conventional wisdom’ is described in Freakonomics as “simple, convenient, comfortable and comforting – but not necessarily true” [↩]