If you have not read the book on which this documentary was modeled, I urge you to do so. Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have taken a ton of data and decided to look for the hidden causalities behind seemingly apparent correlations. If you’re familiar with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you might know the related tenet of belief that as global warming decreases, incidents of piracy increase. “Well those can’t be related,” you think, and they probably aren’t (unless increases in piracy are directly tied to the industrial activity that causes the rise in global warming) — but this is a perfect example of the kinds of seemingly unrelated facts and the misapplication of correlative-only evidence that these guys examine. For example, in the 1950’s, ice cream was a suspect in the polio epidemic because cases of polio increased in summer — just like ice cream consumption! It’s clearly bad science to then assume ice cream causes polio, but in the midst of a scare, people will cling to any answer they can wrap their minds around. As the past decade or so has shown, this lack of critical thinking can be very dangerous and unhelpful. These guys love to take apart the data and find the real culprits. They don’t take sides or advocate for any sorts of solutions to the problems or results they find, they just love to uncover the connections in the data.
Freakonomics, being a film, skims through many bite-size topics which might seem fluffy but gain solidity with the book. Explanatory segments are fun, easily digested animations or re-enactments, and the topics reveal whole worlds of methods of data collection and interpretation. The over-arcing message, or really theme, is that in terms of causalities, motives matter as much, if not more so, than actual behavior and incentives are a way to discover causes and make real change. In terms of the former, a simple example would be that if you’re the kind of person who is so concerned about parenting your child correctly that you buy 10 books on child-rearing, you’re already set up to be a better parent than one who figures it will work itself out — even if you don’t actually read the books. As for the latter, causes of trends or change may be difficult to suss out until you examine the incentive a group might have to behave the way they do. Levitt (an economist and professor) and Dubner (an author and journalist) apply their considerable skills of analysis and presentation, and then invite professional documentarians in to make it work as a movie.
Freakonomics the movie is a nice introduction to the book, but on its own feels almost like an opinion piece (despite their vehement refusal to choose a platform, such as with the correlation between legalized abortion and lower crime rates). Whet your appetite with the film and then read the book; if you read it already, enjoy the guest filmmaker interpretations and feel a little smarter.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/1/10
Time in minutes 85
Director Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, Morgan Spurlock