The new Freakonomics book, When to Rob a Bank, comes out next week, on May 5. I enjoy the Freakonomics podcast, and I think I would really like this book. But I don’t feel comfortable buying it, although that’s not because I particularly disagree with Stephen Levitt and Steve Dubner. I mean, I often do, but I think that’s partly professional biases – I am a professionally trained historian, while they are approaching the world from an economist’s perspective, which I frequently find unhelpful or incorrect – and partly just people disagreeing. But more than that, I don’t want to buy their book because I worry that the Freakonomics guys are wicked.
I say this because of the I-guess-pretty-well-known-at-this-point terrorism section of SuperFreakonomics. In the book, Levitt and Dubner wrote that because it seems unlikely that a terrorist would buy life insurance, any smart terrorist who wanted to evade detection would buy life insurance from the bank. But this was a lie, or more accurately, a trick; here’s how Levitt described it in a 2014 episode of the podcast:
And this whole thing in the SuperFreakonomics book about life insurance was just a complete and total lie. It was made up from beginning to end. Nobody buys life insurance from their bank. I mean, there was some products that people could buy, but nobody purchased it. I mean I’m guessing that a handful of all of our listeners on this podcast have ever bought life insurance from the bank. So what in the world, why would we make this up, what were we talking about. Well here’s the idea: If nobody buys life insurance from the bank, but we managed to get the tabloids in the U.K. and the TV stations to say look these guys are looking for terrorists, and they say if you’re a terrorist and you buy life insurance then you’ll be off their radar screen.* I mean, if I’m not a terrorist, I don’t pay any attention to it. If I’m a terrorist I think twice and I say, hmmm, maybe if I buy life insurance that will get me off their radar screen. And if you are a really, really dumb terrorist, hopefully what you do is you go to the bank and you purchase life insurance. Because of course it’s a trick. And we’re watching to see who, after SuperFreakonomics, comes out and the tabloids write about it shows up at the bank and buys life insurance. And our guess is that the kind of person that buys life insurance when they think it gets you off the hook as a terrorist is much more likely to be a terrorist than a regular person. In other words, by pulling off this scam we manage to get some set of terrorists, the really, really dumb ones, to go to the bank and essentially announce, ‘I am a terrorist.’
I remember listening to this podcast last summer. I was walking my dogs, and I backed the podcast up twice to make sure that I understood correctly. I even briefly unsubscribed from the podcast (although I subscribed again later).
There are many, many things wrong with this plan. It’s obviously bad journalism and unethical; a reader now has no reason to trust anything else written by Dubner and Levitt. Sure, you can argue that the potential gains outweighs the loss; that does not mean that it’s not a problem. Dubner and Levitt knowingly sold a dishonest book. There’s also the fact that, since we are given absolutely no evidence about the results, there’s no reason to think this project was at all successful. As far as we know, they lied and plotted for nothing.
The real problem with this, though, is all the innocent people who heard this, followed the advice, and ended up being harassed or investigated unfairly. We know that their have been increases in hate crimes against Muslims in both the United States and Europe. We know that the governments of various western nations intensify their scrutiny of Muslim and Muslim-ish people – anyone with brown skin or who seems vaguely Middle Eastern. What’s the larger population: innocent Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent who might want to use this as a way to reduce official harassment, or terrorists who will get caught as a result? How many actual terror attacks can this possibly have reduced (given that we must be talking about the dumbest possible terrorists who are likely a greater threat to themselves than to others), and how can you say that it’s worth the additional problems it poses to well-meaning innocents?
What’s particularly shocking to me is that there’s absolutely no evidence that I’ve seen that Levitt and Dubner even considered this possibility. The only concern from the podcast is that people called them idiots for giving away this anti-terrorist tool. It apparently made their book tour tougher; that’s the most regret we get.
This suggests two possibilities: One, Levitt and Dubner just don’t care. This is a chance to do something useful and clever; you’ve gotta break a few eggs, etc etc. This seems plausible, although the total lack of concern is really chilling. Two, and I think more likely, it never occurred to the authors. They’re well-off white guys from the United States; the lived experience of poor brown Muslims in Europe is so distant from their reality as to be unimaginable. When people talk about the value of diversity and affirmative action and all that, this is part of what they mean. It seems clear to me that Levitt and Dubner simply did not think about this. Everything in society is built for their convenience – why would they have to worry about extra police scrutiny or unofficial harassment? Why would they have to worry about it happening to someone else?
I long ago decided that it’s necessary to divide the artist’s personal failings or sins from the art in all but the most egregious cases. I still watch Woody Allen and Roman Polanski movies, I still listen to Dr. Dre and Michael Jackson. That doesn’t mean I accept all art or all of the kinds of arguments that art makes (I still haven’t seen, and won’t see, Zero Dark Thirty, The Interview, or American Sniper for reasons completely unrelated to the ideology of the filmmakers, but rather because of the films themselves). But broken people produce art; sometimes they’re self-destructive, and sometimes they are destructive of others. That’s part of being human. And, just practically, it’s virtually impossible to navigate culture without aiding or promoting or paying some awful person.
Non-fiction seems like it should be different, though. The Freakonomics empire (five books, a movie, a popular website, a podcast, and a lucrative lecture circuit) is trying to make data-driven empirical arguments with real world significance and impact. Dubner and Levitt are trying to change the way people think and act, to influence policy. The kind of shortcomings in this anti-terrorist plan from SuperFreakonomics suggest some deep, fundamental flaw in their thinking, such that everything else that they propose should at least be suspect. It’s like listening to a historian who is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, or a scientist who is anti-vaccines; it doesn’t mean that somebody is automatically wrong about something else, but it does mean a listener should be extra careful when evaluating their ideas. Put more directly: buying this book feels like an endorsement of Levitt and Dubner in a way that watching Carnage doesn’t feel like an endorsement of Polanski.
All that said, this is an extremely convenient position for me to take. I listen to the free material that the Freakonomics people produce, but I expect – indeed refuse on stated principle – to pay anything in return. And I’m not sure if any of this would be tenable if I had some actual influence or power. I don’t mind someone listening to Chris Brown, but if I had influence, would I allow him to, say, talk to a college graduating class? Is it different for collaborative fields like film making, in contrast to more personal work like singers or comedians? It can all be very dispiriting, and I’m not sure where to go with it. It makes me think of this great tweet:
*I am not afraid to admit ignorance: I didn’t know that buying insurance from a bank is weird. I am an adult American professional. I have a PhD! And I didn’t know, or didn’t ever really think about it. It’s easy for me to imagine that poor immigrants wouldn’t know this, either.