'False Freakonomies' - Freakonomics The Movie review

Posted on: 23 December 2010 by Alexander Hay

This documentary makes its point in a loud way, but ultimately lacks substance.

Freakonomics has impressive production values - but not much in the way of strong arguments

As they often say, with unerring predictably, 'there are lies, damn lies and statistics'. Actually, this is only half true. What it should really say is 'there are statistics, more statistics and arguments about statistics', as bucket loads of ink and the odd fist have been hurled not just at statistical data and how it's gathered, but how best to interpret it and whether that interpretation is the right one. 

Combine this with the unfortunate human tendency to see patterns where there are none, and you now probably realise why statisticians spend years at university just to get the point of handling data properly. 

No such nuance has got in the way of the makers of Freakonomics: The Movie, a cinematic spin-off of a popular science book that caused all manner of controversy in 2005, claiming - amongst other things - that abortion kept crime rates down and eerie parallels between the Ku Klux Klan and estate agents. Such a sensationalist and gleefully iconoclastic approach belied the book's pop-sci status. 

Yet whereas other pop-sci books such as Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" and Richard Wrangham's "Catching Fire" succeeded because they used the vernacular to argue for a rigorously scientific point of view, Freakonomics was more an exercise in bludgeoning the reader with gaudy heresies before blitzing him or her in a statistical numberstorm. Whether or not it was true didn't matter so much as whether it left the reader gob-smacked.

Such is the case with the film too. One should always be cautious around anything that claims to reveal truth. Science is merely about what can be observed, and popular media that claims to illuminate with a revelation is just filling the gap in our secular society left by religious mystery. So the knowing, slightly smug and stylised tone of the film starts to grate on the nerves a little, because it seems to be saying that it has the answers and this gives it a licence to be cock-a-hoop.

Much of the film, though, states the blinking obvious - African Americans are caught in a poverty spiral, bankers can be two-faced and greedy, Japanese people are often hidebound by all manner of social dogmas and so on. It's how the data is packaged which is original, the clever animations and visual set pieces serving to make the film more a colourfully dressed shop-front for its point of view than an actual documentary.

But the core thesis of the film, that at the heart of Economics and indeed human behaviour lie 'incentives', is bunk. The film claims this explains everything from cheating to society itself, but here it trips over its own cleverness. Human behaviour is far too complicated and influenced by both our external and internal lives to be reduced down to a simple, single principle. Assuming we do things just for reward is a bit like equating the human race with circus seals that perform tricks for fish. Nor does it do Economics much of a service. If it were that simple, we wouldn't spend so much time trying to work it out.

The film does, of course, make a valid point about confusing causality and correlation, but then it proceeds to fall into exactly that same trap itself by trying to argue for controversy's sake. Certainly, they have some heavy hitting interviewees in the film - including Ivy League academics - but there are no dissenting views here, no debate, just assertion and the strategic selection of authorities who happen to agree with the film's main thrust. Strip this away and it's just an exercise in smart alec contrariness.

After all, what Freakonomics: The Movie turns really out to be is a polemic masquerading as a statistical exercise. This is not a film about facts but one of many possible opinions that come out of those facts. The only real revelation is that this publicity seeking schtick has lasted so 

FREAKONOMICS  is out on DVD on 3rd January 2011 and is available now on i-Tunes.

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Alexander Hay

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