Sunday, June 17, 2012

If insight is the answer, be sure of the question.

I'm a bit under the weather today, dizziness and lightheadedness my primary symptoms. So I've spent much of the day curled up on the bed with Freakonomics. I read most of it when it first came out, which was likely the first time I experienced novel looks at data. But even though I enjoyed it as a fun, interesting non-fiction read, it had no impact on my view of the world. Only poets and Toni Morrison could do that back then.

But now it's a different story.


One chapter of Freakonomics is a profile of one of its authors, economist Steven Levitt, by its other, journalist Stephen Dubner. I skipped such stuff first time through, but revel in it now. One sentence in particular caught my attention: Dubner's assertion that Levitt's real gift is asking "interesting questions."

And Levitt does ask some interesting ones--a number that skirt controversy, all with a tangible human component. Does money impact elections? (His answer: very little.) If drug dealers make so much money, why do they tend to live with their mothers? (Because drug dealing is no cash cow.) Which has more impact on crime, tough mayors or legalized abortion? (Abortion, since it reduces the number of unwanted--therefore ignored and abused--children.)

As anyone who's read 9 3/4 knows, these days I love unexpected, insightful data analysis and interpretation. And unlikely questions, like the ones Levitt asks, certainly can open doors to new and valid perspectives. But Freakonomics has its critics, and my illness today helped illustrate one reason the criticism might be merited.

So I'm in the shower, head spinning, staring blankly at the stone tile. Then I see a face, a young man drawn in anime style, complete with big eyes and a stylish swoop of hair across his forehead. Every time I look at it, I see a perfectly done portrait in that style. You can't miss it.

Except it's not really there. I'm force-fitting a pattern on randomness, just like a boy who sees in clouds a pirate ship being attacked by a dragon or a believer who sees Jesus on a piece of burnt toast. We're all looking for something, and then we find it among the chaos. It just happens to not really be what we swear it is.

And I can't help but think that this is a danger of data extrapolation and interpretation, especially when aiming for the unexpected and unexplored. Because, as Dubner says, even a syllogism can be a magic trick: All cats die, Socrates died; therefore Socrates was a cat.

Anyway, let me know if you ever want to see the anime guy in the shower. I'm sure you'll dig him as much as I do.

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff Kevin. Loved the write up and premise.

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  2. Very appreciated, JR. Hope you're feeling better. You aren't seeing imaginary things in your shower tile too, are you?

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