Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, one of the world’s bestsellers, had an incendiary talk at the Tableau Conference 2017. They both opened up and talked about real life experiences and how they got to be the thought leaders they are today.

While they both kept joking about being antisocial, honestly, they were both a sensation on the stage, so maybe their sociability strength is really in numbers.

Steven Levitt, today a world class economist, told us about his early career stages, all the way back to school. He was really, REALLY bad at calculus and at math, and everyone kept telling him that in order to be an economist, you have to be good at math.

He searched a lot before he found his niche with data. He was close to following his father’s advice, who told him that the only way he will succeed – in lack of any real talent – is to find something that is disturbing for others that they would just steer away from it, and just specialize in that.

One of the things he said stuck in my mind: the world is so unbelievably complex, that best you can hope to do is to have really stylized fake versions of the world.

“I decided the only kind of questions i would ever answer were easy ones. For 15 years i would just find really good questions where the data was so dominant i just couldn’t go wrong. I started getting confused, I thought i was really good at answering questions, because i was only choosing easy questions”.

Another very cool thing he said was that “There is never too much data. But if you have bad incentives, data can be misused”.

On a (not so) different note, Stephen Dubner told us about the time when he used data for one incredible experiment to uncover corruption in the pet cremation industry (I know, right?). Somebody told him that there was a lot of corruption out there in the industry, so he decided to check it out for himself.

He went to pet cremation spots with his presumably dead cats – who were in fact fake decorative ones, stuffed with burger meat. Of course, after they burnt, their weight should have been a lot smaller than a regular cats’, since the burger meat just burns completely. But, in fact, when he got his cremation jar, the weight was absolutely normal.

Same happened for all cats. He took it too forensics and he found out that companies were giving people road kills instead of their real pets.

What else did we pick up from their talk?

  • “That’s a great question” is the thing you say when you don’t have anything to say. By saying that, you buy time, and by saying that it means that it’s such a difficult question that whatever answer i come up with, it will be brilliant.
  • “It’s so much easier to spot the bad decisions in other people than in ourselves. Sometimes you really need to think that you’re better off than you are.”
  • “We tend to be too optimistic. That optimism bias can be fruitful if you harness it.”
  • “The most difficult topic we had to look: climate change”.
  • “The ROI on education is massive. No matter how much money I spend on education, I don’t regret it.”
  • “If the data you’re working with is self-declaring data, it’s not representative. Sometimes when you need to gather data you have to be a little crafty.”
About the author

Sebastian Stan

Sebastian is a journalist and digital strategist with years of experience in the news industry, social media, content creation and management, and digital analytics.

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