Freakonomics

Last semester, I was confused into thinking that I needed an elective to fulfil my course requirements. I chose Macroeconomics 101 because of two reasons: (1) The only other courses that fitted my schedule were Social Work and Chinese Religions, neither of which interested me in the least, and (2) Economics has a reputation as a subject any self-respecting intellectual must have some acquaintance with. And I wanted to be a self-respecting intellectual. Thankfully, towards the end of the add-drop period, I found out that I did not, in fact, need to take an elective and I could have my Thursday afternoons off instead.

But the desire to be a self-respecting intellectual continued to nag the edges of my consciousness. It grew especially loud whenever my debating partner essentially had to ironman1 economics motions, even though I was the extension speaker2. So I put Freakonomics on my to-read list, thinking its generally positive reception from laymen readers and the How to Fossilise Your Hamster-tone would make it a useful starting point.

However, contrary to my high expectations, I finished Freakonomics this afternoon with very mixed feelings. While I can understand why it has been lauded as ‘refreshing’ and ‘unconventional’, ‘groundbreaking’ is a bit excessive. On the book’s Goodreads page, the top question asks why the average rating could possibly be below four. The user goes on to call the book ‘pure genius’ and dismiss readers who gave it low ratings as ‘people [who] do not understand the basics of economics’. Needless to say, I disagree. In fact, I suspect the low raters to be more familiar with economics, or at least subjects requiring similar critical and analytical skills. Too often, I struggled to find the crucial intermediate steps between Levitt’s bold hypotheses and conclusions. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources (the outdated baby car seat study from Chapter 5 being a notable example). And the explanations were generally too simplistic to be convincing or evaluable.

In Chapter 1, the title question was overworked and misleading – akin to a sensationalist headline more suited to the Daily Mail. If the only commonality between the two entirely different professions is cheating, then really, a more appropriate question would have been: “what do most people have in common?” After all, even the authors themselves agree that it is something everyone does, to varying degrees and frequencies. And the title of Chapter 3 implies that poor drug dealers is somehow deeply shocking. Surely, the average informed reader knows that the vast majority of dealers earn barely enough to survive, let alone live among the top 1%? But I digress.

Levitt’s presumptuous tone is most apparent in the final two chapters; although he admitted that his data cannot conclusively answer how much parents matter, he was still unpalatably dismissive. In pointing out, say, museum visits by ‘obsessive’ parents as having no correlation to their children’s early test results (and hence no impact on the children’s dispositions – a ridiculous leap in their logic), the authors were missing the point. I doubt parents organise these supplementary cultural outings to boost their children’s arithmetic or reading comprehension. And an appreciation of the history and wonders of our world can hardly be quantified in an elementary school exam. Similarly, regular spanking may not have a discernible influence on early test scores, but that does not automatically negate the potential effects on the child’s emotional well-being and perspective on violence.

Or in Chapter 6, where Levitt happily determined that names carry no weight at all. Look, Loser is now a high-ranking detective! And Winner, his brother, is a convicted criminal. This proves my point! Would it have been too far-fetched to entertain the possibility that a name like ‘Loser’ could have instilled a defiant determination to succeed? Sure, giving a child a ‘high-end’ name will not catapult him into the educated and upper classes. But Levitt’s black-and-white claim was feebly supported, at best. Likewise, he argued that the most important factor in the sudden drop in crime was the legalisation of abortion. Yet he also recognised that at least three other factors were largely responsible too. How was he so sure that abortion was the biggest contributor? His deductions (beyond superficial appeals to intuitive logic) were never made clear. Besides, the abortion argument was based on many assumptions (for one, that most poor, uneducated pregnant women would always choose abortions), which were not identified or substantiated either. Levitt would have to do much more to give his argument a solid foundation.

Alas, it seems I am no closer to becoming a self-respecting intellectual. Nevertheless, I concede that Freakonomics was engaging and easy to grasp (hence my generous rating). I especially liked the epilogue, Two Paths to Harvard, which I think wrapped up the book in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way. I would, however, highly encourage reading it critically, and more as a stimulus than a thorough manual on how things work.

Rating: 3/5


1In Parliamentary debating, teams compete in pairs. Usually, each member speaks once. If a debater drops out, the remaining debater can make both speeches for the team. He/she is now an ironman. Of course, in the instances mentioned above, Ty (my partner) did not actually ironman. But since he came up with all our points and told me what to say, he essentially did.

2In each team, one person is usually the first/extension speaker and the other the second speaker/whip (unless something drastic happens and they switch roles). The first/extension speaker always gives the bulk of the case (the most important arguments).

The Good Immigrant

When J.K. Rowling deems a book “an important, timely read”, you read it. The Good Immigrant is a beautifully articulate collection of anecdotes and reflections by minority ethnic writers and entertainers in the United Kingdom. Varying in tone from laugh-out-loud hilarious (Nish Kumar is an incredible man) to weary and raw, each piece loudly discredits the increasingly popular assumption that liberal democracies are sheltered within a post-racial, ‘colour-blind’ world. And having been published just three months ago in the year of Leave, Trump and post-imperial nostalgia, this book is a “timely read” indeed.

Even as I was drafting the opening paragraph, I found myself desperately scrambling to find the perfect, most impactful words to convince whoever may read this that a book so overtly focusing on racism is worth their time. That it is not some storm-in-a-teacup (this is a British book, after all) exposé of a cosmopolitan country. And that no, it is certainly not a means of catharsis for ‘race-baiting’ BAME writers blaming white people for all of their problems. My fear of being written off as another petty Asian girl is, in itself, already a strong indicator of just how relevant The Good Immigrant is. Of course, I did feel welcomed (or at least, nonchalantly accepted) during most of my stay in England. Despite having been assaulted in broad daylight on the High Street by a man who subsequently tried to do the same to my Korean and Malaysian friends, most of the people I met did not deliberately make me feel uncomfortable about my ethnicity. But in no way does this suggest that the dialogue on race should be obsolete. Rather, given the current political climate, it is just as, if not more, important than ever before.

Just from my personal experiences, even in a school that proudly declares itself ‘forward-thinking’, ‘liberal’ and ‘international’, a natural Afro was deemed too unprofessional to be part of the uniform code. I was told that whilst Hong Kong girls may be ‘academically talented’, it makes us ‘less emotionally expressive’ (and hence less likely to succeed in interviews for medical schools). Am I making an issue out of nothing? Isn’t being stereotyped as academically talented still a positive stereotype? Isn’t that an asset for people like me? The answer, in short, is no. Positive racism is a ridiculous myth. Like the label ‘model minority’, it is an insult to the systemic prejudice that millions must struggle against. Asians are the ‘model minority’ only because we are quiet and we keep our heads down. Which simply reinforces the idea that our voices deserve to be supporting roles at best. And as Viki Cheung shrewdly pointed out, “in the same mouthful as saying, ‘East Asians are the model minority because they’re quiet and hardworking’, [you imply that] black people are apparently loud and lazy”.1 More evidence that it is absurd to think we benefit from deeply ingrained biases? “Despite being among the highest achievers in [British] schools, Chinese male graduates … can expect to earn 25 per cent less than white male graduates”.2

Besides, actual attitudes towards East Asians are far more complex than just ‘they are all good at mathematics’ or ‘they are sensible and self-reliant’. Often, the UK’s image of an East Asian immigrant combines conflicting views. “In an educational study published by Routledge in 2005, … teachers attributed success to inherently ‘Chinese’ qualities while simultaneously hinting that these qualities were ‘enclosed’, ‘denying children individuality’ and in opposition to Western cultural ideas”.3 So the assumptive premise that we are only subjected to ‘positive’ stereotypes is already false. Not to mention the Tiger Mum and dog-eating caricatures that we still face.

Anyway, back to the book. Every one of the 21 writers offered poignant, poetic and unclichéd windows into their lives as first- and second-generation immigrants in the UK. Though racism is by no means a fun or lighthearted topic, at no point was the book a slow or sterile read. I devoured half of it in a single sitting, and only paused because it was 4 a.m. and my parents were understandably annoyed at the prospect of me showering and waking them up in the early morning (I have this thing where I absolutely must shower before I go to bed, and at that point I had not had my daily shower yet). Although I admit that I am very privileged to live in a city where I am the ethnic majority, my two years in England still made many of the authors’ sentiments incredibly relatable.

And even beyond my brief stint abroad, the fact that the universal experience is largely defined by the white experience nonetheless made the book a pertinent articulation of my identity as part of the global majority. In Darren Chetty’s chapter, he noted how he had “spent almost two decades teaching children … in English primary schools that serve multiracial, multicultural, multifaith communities”, during which “whenever children [were] asked to write a story in school, children of colour [would] write a story featuring characters with ‘traditional’ English names who speak English as a first language”.4 And that was exactly what I had done throughout my childhood as an aspiring writer, despite having been born and raised 9,600km away from England – something that I did not even realise until I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk a year ago.

So regardless of whether you are currently an immigrant, or whether you live in a predominantly white nation, or whether you are part of a minority group at all, I cannot recommend this book enough. I implore you to keep an open mind, be challenged and to simply enjoy the ride of a great read.

Rating: 5/5


1Beyond ‘Good’ Immigrants by Wei Ming Kam.

2Ibid. Data from Yaojun Li, Fiona Devine, Anthony Heath, ‘Equality Group Inequalities in Education, Earnings and Employment’, Equality and Human Rights Commission, (2008), Executive summary, iii.

3Ibid.

4‘You can’t say that! Stories have to be about White people’ by Darren Chetty.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance

Atul Gawande demonstrates his intuitive eye for captivating storytelling – the ability to spin a primarily scientific endeavour into an affecting narrative. Each description is sprinkled with the personal (perhaps unnecessary, from a medical viewpoint) details characteristic of a gripping novel, persuading even the least medically inclined readers that yes, it is pertinent, it is relatable, and it is certainly deserving of their attention. Above all, he has an extraordinary talent for making people care.

Better, his second book, is noticeably less personal that his first. Of course, Gawande still makes sure to thoughtfully contemplate, to paint the picture from his perspective. In fact, the most memorably section is the Afterword, which offers five concise suggestions for, very fittingly, becoming a better doctor or medical student. These suggestions were all drawn from his personal experiences. What do I mean by ‘less personal’ then? In Complications, like in Oliver Sacks’ renowned publications (see The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), many of the chapters focused on one or two cases that he was responsible for. The subsequent discussions were all anchored to these cases. In Better, however, many of the ‘cases’ were operations on a national, sometimes international, scale. Gawande travelled across states and continents to better understand these proceedings with unwavering determination, but the spotlight was no longer just illuminating his individual performance.

In my opinion, this made Better an even better read. It repeatedly reminded me that even if every doctor, nurse, pharmacist, technician, intern, government official relentlessly tried their very best to do better, the overall medical system is as at fault as these individuals in any room for improvement. The system in question can be a single hospital, a local healthcare plan, government policies or international NGOs. Furthermore, the victories are in the most mundane details – steady supplies of basic materials (a scalpel, a simple plastic tube), fundamental sanitary practices (washing hands)… Consistently establishing these as the routine can save significantly more lives than radical discoveries, but receives much less funding and attention than laboratory research.

To conclude, I highly recommend Better to anyone vaguely interested in the medical industry. It will pose questions, answer them, and make you want to ask even more. And it might even overturn how you think of medicine itself.

Rating: 4.5/5