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GP20Apr05: Quantum Thinking

Freakonomics.  This is the nicely deviant title of Professor Steven Levitt’s new book, which has earned him all sorts of attention from the pundits.  Readers of the Global Province have previously encountered him in “Chicago Has Got It,” in our Big Ideas section.  By double sifting economic data, he reaches a host of conclusions about why things in our society are the way they are, upsetting many of our complacent notions about what makes us tick. 

Just recently, John Tierney in The New York Times (“The Miracle That Wasn’t,” April 16, 2005, p. A270) reported on a debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Levitt where the Chicago professor’s idea that abortion lies behind falling crime rates won the day.  Longer prison terms, increased policing, etc. do not seem half as important in crime’s decline when you follow the Prof’s train of logic.  

The thought, oversimplified, is that fewer children of unwed mothers get out on the street when free and easy abortion is at hand.  They, unfortunately, account for a lot of crime.  Our hunch is that his “abortion” theory holds water, but that it really is still only one of a potpourri of factors that make for falling crime rates.  Crime maps and statistical analysis also have simply led to much more effective policing.  Broadly, of course, changing demographics have a lot to do with crime attrition.  Since abortions have increased under the Bush administration, we can only assume that the Republicans have become unwitting crimefighters, much to their chagrin.  Some, of course, will find the discovery  of the abortion factor equivalent to the Reverend Jonathan Swift’s  “Modest Proposal,” a satirical essay where the author proposes to eliminate population and starvation problems in the Emerald Isle by getting the Irish to eat their children.  

The House that Hutchins Built.  The University of Chicago where Levitt hangs his hat produces lots of renegade thinking, and we  wonder why it obviously gins up more out-of-left-field aberrant thoughts that turn out to be right than the well funded institutions in Cambridge and Berkeley, home to all the “experts” who are inevitably wrongheaded.  In part, for sure, its powers of insight stem from the fact that this university is a relative newcomer to America, only coming on the scene in 1891 due to the largesse of John Rockefeller.  Chicago should be justly proud of this agile university that never quite seems to be as captive to the right or the left as its sisters, or pay as much obeisance to the cookie-cutter, circular thinking running through academia.  This is the university that produced Milton the Monetarist, our friend Judge Richard Posner, who can put a price on almost every form of conduct, Robert Fogel, who mixed econometrics with history, and a clutch of  physicists who have provided catalytic thoughts in the sciences. 

We like to credit this quiet maverick tradition to Robert Maynard Hutchins, an educational reformer who put in time as a Yale Law School Dean but came into his own as President of the University of Chicago (1929-1945) and then as its Chancellor (1945-1951).  He’s the guy who invented interdisciplinary studies, which, at its best, will produce a legion of big thinkers.  (At its worst, of course, it turns education into mongrel, meaningless drivel).  Later he promoted the Great Books idea, headed the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and topped off his career as leader of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara.  It’s said that UChicago turned back into a conventional university after he left, but we like to think his imprint lasts.  At least he put the place on the map, and it’s been quietly making waves since.  

Quantum Thinking.  We said last week in “A Better Vintage” that in this age of quantum mechanics we have to be able to deal with probabilities and brush aside rigidity and ideological certainty.  That’s what the folks at Chicago seem to be doing fairly well.  They are dealing with masses of data and teasing out the improbable conclusions that hold up—the more you think about them. 

We would claim that the problem and opportunity for our society does not lie in more disclosure or so-called transparency, but in imaginative, freaky interpretation.  Sergeant Friday was wrong when he said, “All I want is the facts, ma’am.”  We need to go beyond the facts.  We are overwhelmed by data we don’t use or understand—in every province of our lives.  Whether dealing with business, or crime, or healthcare, the problem is to read the data deeply so that we reach penetrating conclusions we can act on.  In a complex society, we must look for the cause of causes, or we will get nothing done.  If we find ultimately that crime rates drop because there are less crime-doers around, then we can begin to argue how best to stop generating felons. 

Nowhere is seminal, prime-mover thinking needed than in the healthcare arena, the costs of which are eating our national lunch and making our major businesses internationally uncompetitive.  It is all too clear that we are spending too much time and money on curing illnesses, and hardly an iota on prevention.  We are building healthcare policies based on a shallow reading of the data.  An enormous number of health problems in the U.S. stem, not from Mother Nature, but from flaws in our society that can be remedied.  So the litany of suggestions we are hearing about how to repair or improve our healthcare system is almost totally irrelevant.  We need some irreverent data analysis, probably from Chicago, that shows where public health spending could make gigantic differences in our lives and pocketbooks by simply not letting illness happen and changing some of our self-defeating habits.  

Knowledge Transfer.  As near as we can tell, there are a whole lot of Levitts around who have bright ideas that can lead to effective policies we can afford.  But our knowledge machinery is sclerotic.  Big ideas don’t get circulated, and only the trivial floats through our knowledge canals, stuffed as they are with fatty substance.  Good thinking does not get out of the ivory tower into the marketplace.  The task ahead is to figure out how we go round our existing channels of opinion to get quantum thinking into the hands of our citizenry, when our institutions are so invested in tired truisms.  It’s comforting, all the same, to realize that the ideas are there for the asking. 

P.S.  By the way, do take a peek at Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a much more important book for our times than his renowned The Tipping Point.  In effect, he celebrates one form of intuition in the new book, something much needed for us to overcome our inertial mental estate.  Gladwell is turning into a sort of pop epistemologist.  Of course, in their debate together, Levitt clearly stared him down.  Probably the only way out of our current economic quandary is a rampage of innovation which will take a whole lot of “blink” as well as other types of intuitive activity leading to counter-intuitive observations with a Levittine flavor.  (See www.gladwell.com/blink/index.html#whatis.) 

P.P.S.  We said above that interdisciplinary education gone astray can result in a horrible hodgepodge.  The math textbooks originating out of Chicago illustrate this: they mix in a little bit of everything and leave kids wondering which end is up.  In general, integrated curriculums in primary and high schools have wreaked havoc on the educational process—leaving our teachers weary and our children short on ABCs.

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