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Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner claim, is a newly invented field of study that address the unexpected questions that others fail to explore. As a result, their book discusses and relates a variety of strange yet important topics, such as cheating sumo wrestlers and teachers, the Ku Klux Klan and real estate agents, and abortion and crime rates. However, although many of these relate to highly charged issues, the authors present an engaging writing style that subdues this tension and avoids offending the reader.
One of the more controversial topics discussed in the book concerns realtors and their skillful utilization of “the information asymmetry [they enjoy]” (73). Although it seems unavoidable that fingers will be pointed and real-estate agents will be put under a spotlight of shame, the authors skillfully incorporate generalizations about humans that shift the “blame”, creating a sense of impartiality. While there is emphasis placed on certain words to show impact, like the monetary loss to K due to “his own agent’s intervention”, Levitt and Dubner calm this sharper tone shortly afterwards by shrugging it off and suggesting that everyone abuses information similarly in their daily lives, and not only experts (73). Just like how the words used in ads are critical to the sale price of houses, the book also makes good use of connotative language to establish a more neutral tone. In outlining the process taken by realtors to sell houses, the authors use the words “patiently” and “careful” (73). Although ultimately the agent is using information to their advantage, the connotation of these words provides a more positive image, illustrating them as organized and systematic, rather than cunning and exploitative. Overall, the writing avoids offending by creating an impartial tone through its abstinence from opinions and statement of everything as only truth and facts. This forces the reader to accept what the book presents as simply a matter of fact or a characterization of all humanity that simply cannot be changed.
In the very first chapter of the book, a very prominent concern in society is addressed: cheating. Levitt and Dubner almost immediately manage to subdue this topic by quantifying the entire concept. They describe cheating to be “a primordial economic act: getting more for less” (21). This succeeds in reducing the moral strain on one’s consciousness that comes with the thought of cheating by simply boiling it down to numbers: humans want more. And this means everyone. In the first paragraph on page 21, the authors make use of the word “you” several times in order to emphasize the inclusion of each and every reader, regardless of who they may be (21). They create numerous sample scenarios that can appear in everyday life, such as board games, golf, copying test answers, or even taking a bagel from work and forgetting to pay, to illustrate that no one is exempt from the act of cheating, regardless of how insignificant the act may seem; “it isn’t just the boldface names” (21). Once again this dissipates any possibility of offense by generalization; while cheating is considered to be immoral and selfish, it is unavoidable, making it “a prominent feature in just about every human endeavor” (21). Once again, by extending this topic to everyone, the writing makes it seem less criticizing and more a matter of fact; the authors’ tone stresses analysis of reality rather than morals so it does not appear to target anyone.
Yet another controversial topic that appears is abortion and its correlation to crime rates. Before connecting the two ideas, the authors first discuss the history of abortion and then crime separately, using facts to back up everything. After discovering the cause and effect relationship from the evidence provided, the first thing Levitt and Dubner do is take the stance of a reader. They remain objective, covering all possible reactions and views. Throughout the entire section, they continue to ask questions or ponder aloud what the reader might be wondering, giving their writing an unbiased, friendly tone. For example, the book asks, “how, then, can we tell if the abortion-crime link is a case of causality rather than simply correlation?”. Instead of constantly pushing forward more data that suggests this fact, the writing tries to move at the pace of the reader. It is easy to read without getting offended because the writers never take a stance or argue for any one side. They use impartial phrases like “however a person feels about abortion…” and “obviously there is no right answer” to avoid any possible of the reader feeling uncomfortable (142, 144). They also accept that these findings could cause people to “feel shaken by the notion of a private sadness converted into a public good” (142). Towards the end of the chapter, the book discusses the comparative value of a newborn vs a fetus. This could have potentially been a dangerous question to explore, but the writers address both sides, and then warn the reader to discontinue reading if they identified strongly with either side. By taking care to avoid unintentionally supporting one side, they form a better connection with the reader and are less likely to offend.
Throughout the book, Levitt and Dubner discuss various controversial topics, yet still manage to achieve a good balance in their writing. They maintain an unbiased tone through use of qualifiers and addressing the reader directly by asking questions. Utilizing italicized words, as well generalizations, the authors’ voice comes out as friendly, curious, and very logical. The most important aspect of their writing is that they never seem to favor any one side of the argument and instead analyze all viewpoints and consider a variety of evidence and research before coming up with a final conclusion. This style not only succeeds in preventing readers from taking offense, but also keeps them engaged and wanting to read more.
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