My short bio: I'm mostly a writer, of the non-fiction sort. Best known for the "Freakonomics" books, all co-authored with my friend Steve Levitt. I also host Freakonomics Radio — and, as of this week, a new podcast, Question of the Day, with my friend James Altucher. I tend to write about things that interest me rather than things that a lot of people necessarily care about; occasionally, those two intersect. Since the new podcast is about asking and answering questions, I figured another AMA was in order. So, reddit, ask me anything!

Prev. AMA:

My Proof:

Hi all -- looks like I've answered all your questions, will sign off now. Thanks for having me!

PS: Hi, I'm back to answer some more q's that have since come in. Thnx, SJD

Okay, now I'm really leaving (4pm ET), thanks to all

Comments: 154 • Responses: 36  • Date: 

ZPGoldstein46 karma

Which chapter of any of the Freakonomics books most surprised you when you first learned about it?

dubner_freakonomics94 karma

The depressing answer is: there's a section in SuperFreakonomics about how unbelievably ineffective most forms of chemotherapy are. Those data really threw me for a loop. The less depressing answer: we analyzed two different kinds of "agents" to see which one provided more value to their customer: real-estate agents vs. pimps. Guess who won?

ZPGoldstein35 karma

What are some similar books that you would recommend for people who like the Freakonomics books?

dubner_freakonomics49 karma

I think "Nudge" (Thaler/Sunstein) is really good, as is "Thinking, Fast and Slow," by Danny Kahneman.

sk42134 karma

I'm a huge fan of Freaknomics Radio! Thanks for making my Thursday morning commute more enjoyable. How do you decide what topic to talk about?

dubner_freakonomics28 karma

Thanks for listening! Most of the topics from come from either a) a specific listener question or (more common) b) just something that pops into my head, based on something I've read, seen, thought about, etc etc etc. I have been a writer for a really long time now and you basically develop a sixth sense of idea-hunting -- constantly rolling around thoughts in your head, processing and re-processing the things you observe, asking if they really make sense, asking what would happen if it were done the opposite way, etc etc etc. So as a writer I am basically always writing, even if I'm just walking down the street, and asking a question is the most foundational part of curiosity journalism.

rufioherpderp29 karma

Regardless of who wins the 2016 US Presidential election, what is the first thing they could do to put us in better economic standing?

dubner_freakonomics135 karma

Admit that the President can't do all that much about our economic standing.

OPs_Mom_and_Dad16 karma

Hi Dubner. Huge fan here.

You mentioned in "How to Make a Smart TV Ad" that you couldn't believe you were doing an episode on advertising. I found this odd because I am a marketer, and have always thought your work and the work of Behavioral Economics in general applies directly to my field. This got me wondering, what do you think the point of your work/this field is? What is the intended application of the findings?

dubner_freakonomics10 karma

I only meant that I found myself surprised that I was doing an episode about how great a TV ad was. I find advertising and marketing both very interesting fields, esp. now that digital info gives us some real insights into ROI -- and the news is often not very good. We made another podcast about advertising/marketing that I loved -- called "The Maddest Men of All."

sportsDude16 karma

What are some things that interest you that you could see writing about in the future?

dubner_freakonomics28 karma

Hi sportsDude, and hi Reddit! Very nice to be back here, and thanks for the questions. The list of things I want to write about in the future is so long as to not even be a list. There aren't really many things that don't interest me -- paradoxically, those are some of the areas that many, many journalists prefer: politics, e.g. My favorite thing about being a writer/radio guy is that I get to exercise curiosity on a daily basis, and curiosity is one of my favorite things (and, I believe, one of the healthiest vices to have). The other day, somebody called me a "curiosity journalist" and I loved it -- because it implies I'm doing what I'm doing out of pure interest rather than advocacy or agitation or chest-thumping or whatever. Of course I won't always be successful, but being curious is what turns me on.

Pianoplunkster13 karma

Hi Stephen, Big fan of the show. I'd like to get your opinion on the use of the phrase "I'm not a scientist, but ____" This is a very popular phrase among politicians and pundits, and one that particularly irks me (shameless self-plug, I blogged about it here). In your opinion, how much background knowledge should be required to make decisions about a particular topic?

dubner_freakonomics13 karma

Love your question. Don't have a good answer but I will think about it. It's tricky: we want our "decision-makers" (politicians, CEOs, etc.) to be generalists in some sense, but we also want them to act on solid evidence. There's a gap there, for sure.

jayqwelin12 karma

What is your favorite subject that you've discussed through "Freakonomics"?

dubner_freakonomics34 karma

One of my very favorite things remains, from the first book, the chapter about Sudhir Venkatesh, the sociologist who embedded himself with the crack gang in Chicago. To me, his story really summarized everything I think about when I think about what we do with Freakonomics -- i.e.: things you always thought you knew, but didn't; and things you never thought you wanted to know about, but do.

bearjew6410 karma

Hey Stephen, you've taught us how to be an inconspicuous terrorist (life insurance), how to get away with murder (vehicular hit and run), and when to rob a bank (SPOILERS!). Any other crimes on your future list for analysis?

dubner_freakonomics9 karma

Hmm, good Q. I don't see any crimes per se on the list of upcoming Freakonomics Radio shows but we are working on something about addiction.

karthikrs9 karma

Who are your biggest influencers (living/dead)?

dubner_freakonomics10 karma

Biggest influencers in how I think/work are: Ivan Kronenfeld (an old friend/mentor of mine who truly taught me to look at the world from different angles, and to work really hard); Steve Levitt (ditto); some bosses I've had in journalism including especially Adam Moss and Jack Rosenthal, both at the NYTimes Magazine; my wife Ellen Binder (great photographer and great journalist who also has great understanding of the human mind). Countless others, in bits and pieces.

mon_dieu8 karma

What's your current opinion on global warming / climate change and the potential for geoengineering to save the day? Is it still the same as in the Superfreakonomics chapter on this topic, or have any events and developments in the meantime impacted your opinion?

dubner_freakonomics7 karma

I don't think we know that much more about geoengineering's potential since we wrote SuperFreak, in part because public/political response to it is so often wary, and thus there's been less experimentation than one might like. The potential need for some form of geoengineering, meanwhile, hardly seems to have diminished, wouldn't you say?

Blkdahlia7 karma

Would you be interested in switching genres? What would you write?

dubner_freakonomics9 karma

I keep thinking about and toying with mystery novels but so far haven't been able to give up non-fiction.

bugzzzz6 karma

What intrigues you about Reddit, based on what you know?

dubner_freakonomics11 karma

I am a big fan of self-organization (i.e., not top-down administration, etc.), whether it's "hidden order"-type stuff or "invisible hand"-type stuff or whatever. We did a Freak Radio episode once called something like "What Do Skating Rinks, Ultimate Frisbee, and the World Have in Common?" and it was about how people generally tend to organize, police, and improve themselves pretty well when given a chance (and the right incentives). Reddit strikes me as a pretty similar ecosystem.

Sjc8506 karma

You talked about being in a band before writing and radio. What made you switch over? Do you like being an author/host MORE than a musician?

dubner_freakonomics9 karma

There were a lot of reasons I quit playing music and became a writer. But here's the biggest one: as much fun as it was to be in a band, and to pursue the rock star dream, I decided that I didn't actually want to be a rock star. I didn't want to be dependent on a lot of things that come with the territory (including the travel). And I especially didn't want to be famous. I think a lot of people think it would be really cool to be famous (i.e., visually recognizable) but once you get even a little taste of that, you learn it's actually very costly, and intrusive, and limits your options. So even though I'm a tiny bit famous now, I can go walk the dog in my pajamas if I want and not worry about someone taking a picture.

starkrampf5 karma

Do you ever run out of topics/stories to do research on, or is there some sort of backlog?

dubner_freakonomics2 karma

Big big backlog. For every one episode of Freakonomics Radio, for instance, there are another 4 or 5 that I am eager to get to but will take time to research, report, write, etc. That said, I am always looking for good ideas/questions -- and in fact a lot of the Freakonomics Radio (and Question of the Day) podcast questions come from listeners via e-mail, so do send stuff along, yes? Not sure if it's kosher to drop my e-mail here so I won't but I am easy to find.

ManWithYourPlan5 karma

Who do you plan on voting for in the upcoming presidential election?

dubner_freakonomics13 karma

There's an election?

psociety5 karma

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

dubner_freakonomics6 karma

Same thing I have every day: strong coffee with some half-and-half. I only eat breakfast when I have to (with other people) or when I have to give a lecture or something at 10am and know that my brain will need the fuel.

joecbloom5 karma

What's the last thing you quit?

(I know it's cliche as a fan to heap praise on The Upside of Quitting, but, great stuff! Giving myself permission to quit things that aren't working out has been powerful. Cheers.)

dubner_freakonomics4 karma

:-) good question. I hadn't really thought about this much, even though yes, as you point out, we have preached The Upside of Quitting. Here's my answer: I haven't really quit anything major in a long time -- but I believe that's because I did quit a lot of things earlier in my life: the religion I was raised in; the rock band I got in during college, and which eventually got a record deal; and then my "dream job" at the NYTimes. Because I quit so much, and knew that these were "good" quits -- and that they led to increased happiness/serenity -- I think it's given me a certain level of confidence about making decisions now, so that I probably am less reluctant to turn down things that I think I may want to or have to quit later. So I'm not sure if that's exactly why I haven't had to quit anything major in a long time, but I haven't. Maybe also, however, I'm just getting old, and it takes a lot of energy to quit! (I just turned 52 -- am finally playing with a full deck.)

Widgard5 karma

What is a question that you want to be asked?

dubner_freakonomics30 karma

Not that one.

odsdaniel5 karma

What's the best question you have ever been asked?

dubner_freakonomics15 karma

That one.

fisticuffs324 karma

What is the one concept you'd like your readers to understand?

dubner_freakonomics11 karma


futureproof14 karma

Hi, Dubner! Big fan. What advice would you give for someone staring a new podcast?

dubner_freakonomics7 karma

Hi and thanks, futureproof1. (Was "futureproof" really taken already?) I think the only rule is that you have to do something you are deeply, truly, passionately curious about. Then it won't feel like work and the listener won't feel like you're preaching, or have some agenda. Freakonomics Radio is a blast because it allows me to interview all kinds of very smart people who have data or ideas about the world that aren't necessarily mainstream. And my new podcast, "Question of the Day" (with good friend James Altucher) is literally two friends sitting around trying to answer a given question, drawing on everything we know, usually failing, but almost always having a laugh along the way. It's really fun.

realfoodman4 karma

How do you decide whether to interview someone in person or remotely? If you do it remotely, is there a better way than just over the phone?

dubner_freakonomics2 karma

Mostly about convenience, and efficiency -- if I had to interview everyone in person, I'd only get to about 20% of the people I get to. There are huge pros and cons to both, let me say, and I do my best to exploit each situation.

GeneralHigandium3 karma

What do you think is the most important core economic principle and why?

dubner_freakonomics14 karma

Hard to name one but I think opportunity cost is a massively important and massively underappreciated notion.

SegaGenecyst3 karma

Do you have any stories about (former band mate) Jon Wurster?

dubner_freakonomics5 karma

He is a prince, in every way imaginable: kind, smart, hilarious, hard-working, not neurotic. A really great guy (and amazing drummer). Sorry I don't have anything salacious.

sedict3 karma

Thanks for doing this,big fan here.

Is there any data you provide ever proven to be false or have you regretted writing a part ? I am sure a ton of work went into the books/poadcasts,I'm just wondering if despite all this something was not researched enough or the source turned out not being reliable.

dubner_freakonomics7 karma

Sure, we make mistakes. We wrote a NYT column about Stetson Kennedy, the anti-KKK advocate whose work we covered in "Freakonomics," because it turns out he had embellished his record. We did a podcast called "Soul Possession" in which our phrasing of the Mormon Church's views of the soul were poorly described. Etc. etc. etc. But we try to be as careful and diligent as we can, while still not being deadly dull.

MidnightBreeze1132 karma

hope this isn't off topic but did you enjoy your time at Appalachian state university? Did it influence your work in any way?

dubner_freakonomics2 karma

Very much -- first time away from home, beautiful setting, a very safe environment to learn how to be creative.

GeneralHigandium2 karma

Which book of yours would you consider your favorite? Personally, I love "When to Rob a Bank"

dubner_freakonomics5 karma

Personally I might say my first book, pre-Freakonomics, called "Turbulent Souls," later republished as "Choosing My Religion." Of the Freakonomics books, I might say "Think Like a Freak."

rle5162 karma

Do you have much interest in analyzing the world economy or US economy?

dubner_freakonomics3 karma

Not really. Too hard -- and too many other people already making a hash of it.

Boldly_Going2 karma

Hello, Mr. Dubner! Freakonomics was the basis for my senior project, so I guess I have you to thank for my graduation. Thanks!

Do you prefer the book format or podcast format for getting information across?

dubner_freakonomics3 karma

These days, I really love the podcast for its immediacy. But I will always love writing books.

EarthwormEd2 karma

What piece of advice would you give to someone looking to become a freelance writer/journalist in the same spheres that you work in?

dubner_freakonomics5 karma

Report report report (i.e., find out stuff that other people don't know, and want to know). Be as fair and decent and non-gotcha as you can. Check every fact about a million times. Don't tell people what to think; just write down what people say, do, think. Good luck!

HoverboardMcfly1 karma

As a New Yorker, how do you feel about the Tom Brady decision?

dubner_freakonomics11 karma

I love the NFL's product (though not as much as I used to; my son has made me a much bigger soccer fan), but it is hard to love the NFL, for many of their unilateral actions/decisions (which you can get away with if you're a cartel) turn out to be pretty poor. So I'm generally happy about the Brady decision -- although, as a Steelers fan (we play Pats opening night) I would of course have preferred him being suspended!

qralex1 karma

What does your daily routine look like (or, alternatively, with all the projects you have going on — do you have anything like a daily routine, or do things differ wildly from day to day)? :)

dubner_freakonomics3 karma

I like routine a lot but my schedule doesn't always allow me to stick to it. Generally: up early (5 or 5:30), read a bit and answer some e-mails, and generally get mind in gear for what I want to be working on today. Then walk the dog. Then at desk usually by 7 or 7:30 and do my best writing/thinking/reading from then until around 11 or 12. Lunch break ... maybe a walk, etc. ... Catch a second wind for work in early- to mid-afternoon, work 'til 6 or so, home to family. In bed by 9:30 or 10. Rinse, lather, repeat.

dipsy33021 karma

What inspired you to write the first book?

dubner_freakonomics3 karma

I loved Levitt's work and, even though I was deep into another book I was already writing solo (about the psychology of money), I put that in a drawer to do Freakonomics (in part b/c my publisher offered a nice payday for it). Worked out okay.

caseyjones341 karma

Hi Stephen ! Freakonomics Radio is amazing. I listen to your podcast everyday on my commute. My question is about awards shows. Do you think that society would benefit from Nobel Prize televised shows replacing shows like Academy awards, Oscars, and Grammys ? Is it possible children would begin growing up with different role models OR even be discouraged to follow certain dreams ?

Also, Did you get the chance to ask the President of Harvard her feelings about racism in america right now?

Thanks Dubner!!!

dubner_freakonomics3 karma

We are actually working on a Nobel Prize episode right now, so I will think about your suggestion, which is great! My sense is that the ratings would be so low that it would embarrass everyone affiliated with it. As for Harvard prez/racism -- I didn't ask her that directly, but we did talk about race a bit, mostly in historical setting. (For those of you who don't know what we're talking about here, we just put out a Freakonomics Radio episode called "The Harvard President Will See You Now."

mon_dieu-5 karma

Did he seriously leave after answering questions for only 1/2 hour? I count 11 replies.

dubner_freakonomics13 karma

I did leave because I exhausted all Q's, and no more were forthcoming. But I came back later to check and there were many more, so I've answered a bunch.