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The field of economics can study more than the workings of economies or businesses, it can also help explore human behavior in how it reacts to incentives. Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner host an anthology of documentaries that examines how people react to opportunities to gain, wittingly or otherwise. The subjects include the possible role a person's name has for their success in life, why there is so much cheating in an honor bound sport like sumo wrestling, what helped reduce crime in the USA in the 1990s onward and we follow an school experiment to see if cash prizes can encourage struggling students to improve academically. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
This isn't really a documentary. A few of the chapters from the book are presented in this film. The way the issues are presented usually involve first Levitt and Dubner speaking about the issue interspersed with various imagery and animation. Some archival footage is used. Particularly when the topic addresses famous historical events. Each segment will also have actors re-enacting events or acting out original scenes to present the topic visually. There are also other experts or people who call themselves experts (like an "expert" in baby names) talking about the issue. Finally there is some footage of actual people either discussing personal experiences, or in the case of the high school students, the students themselves living their lives. Although even this seems staged at points.
It seems they used a lot of flashy graphics and various forms of presentation to cover up the fact that this film is ultimately Levitt, Dubner and the narrator just talking generally about the issues covered in the book. I'm a fan of the podcast so if this film had just been them talking and nothing else I'd still have liked it. But there is a sense of lacking an opportunity in creating something new on film. All the colorful imagery doesn't bring anything new to the table.
The film doesn't cover the entire book. I haven't read it in years but one of the more important topics to me was about the drug dealers which wasn't in the film.
What I found really lacking, beyond the visual or the missing chapters, is that they didn't really go into detail with anything. They vaguely reference statistics, but hardly show any. They make off handed comments about important concepts that they don't spend any time on. Two of the most important themes of the entire work, causation vs. causality, and the power of incentive are hardly discussed beyond the immediate topic. For example while they note in the film that people often mistake correlation with causation, and that finding cause is very difficult, they don't spend a second actually explaining why cause is difficult to ascertain (except that it isn't immediately apparent). Day one of a social science course is going to identify the difficulty or impossibility of defining cause. Levitt and Dubner do not mention that while statistics and economics in the scope of numbers is natural science, their application in Freakonomics is social science, and all the stats in the world won't necessarily prove cause in social science.
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