Stephen J. Dubner Quotes

  1. If I make the mistake of eating breakfast, I want to go back to bed and/or eat again immediately.
  2. Spielberg may have intended ‘Schindler’s List’ as the opposite of entertainment, but the film grossed $321 million and engaged audiences as only entertainment can, coaxing them to cry and shudder, leaving their hearts more heavy than broken.
  3. Cancer is, in general, an increasingly important topic, in part because we’ve gotten so good at preventing other forms of death that cancer, despite some gains made against it, is becoming even more prominent.
  4. Set aside a half hour or an hour to rethink the way you make decisions, the habits you have, the biases you may have. And if you think of things, if you come with a little bit of a blank slate and be willing to acknowledge what you don’t know, and you’d be willing to think like a child, I think it’ll help not only individuals but society at large.
  5. Religion is a way to make order from chaos, and I think economics is not dissimilar. In religion and in economics, you’re trying to figure out the way we perceive the world and move through it, and that’s what I like to learn.
  6. The world is complicated. But does every problem require a complicated solution?
  7. It’s amazing how unwilling most people are to admit they don’t know the answer to a question or a problem and instead charge forward on a ‘gut instinct’ that turns out to be crap.
  8. The data are what matter in economics, and the more ruthlessness that an economist can summon to make sense of the data, the more useful his findings will be.
  9. One of the strangest unintended consequences of abortion, of legalized abortion, was that it drives the crime rate down because what abortion really was, was a mechanism for which fewer unwanted children could be born.
  10. As everyone knows, tips constitute the bulk of a waiter’s or waitress’s income. But they are also optional, at least in theory. Does it really seem like a good idea to make someone’s salary so susceptible to customers’ whims on a given day – or whether any customers happen to show up at all?
  11. While in the middle of writing a book, I have a hard time reading other books for pleasure.
  12. These are the two sides of Steven Spielberg: the reverent grown-up who knows when to say the right thing and the exuberant kid who loves a good laugh. Both sides are sincere, and both are necessary, for Spielberg knows he can’t feel good about himself unless everyone else feels the same way.
  13. We’ve been conditioned to think that quitting is a failure, a form of failure. How do we know that that’s true?
  14. Deflategate. I mean it’s kind of idiotic in one way. On the other hand, look how totally obsessed we are with the fact that the New England Patriots may have taken, I don’t know, a half-pound or a pound square inch of air pressure out of the footballs. We love it.
  15. I love sports, and I love playing sports.
  16. When most people think of economists, they think of macro-economists. Macro-economists try to describe or – even harder – predict the movements of a hugely dynamic system. They’re like a transplant surgeon trying to simultaneously transplant every failing organ in someone’s body.
  17. That’s what’s good about the digital revolution is it makes information asymmetry much harder to maintain.
  18. Like the graduates of some notorious boot camp, my brothers and sisters and I look back with a sort of perverse glee at the rigors of our Catholicism. My oldest sister, Mary, was so convinced of the church’s omnipotence that when she walked into a Protestant church with some high-school friends, she was sure its walls would crash down on her head.
  19. When certain people have certain beliefs, they can be unyielding, and that’s really what faith is. There’s a large place in the world for faith, but when it comes to a scientific, political, and economic issue, dogma is not a very good place to start.
  20. We took our Catholicism very seriously. We never missed Mass; our father was a lector, and both our parents taught catechism. At 3 in the afternoon on Good Friday, we gathered in the living room for 10 minutes of silence in front of a painting of the Crucifixion.
  21. I’m a writer. I’ve been a journalist for my whole adult life.
  22. If the day’s writing has been particularly good or particularly bad, a glass of scotch will be involved.
  23. If we want politics to be the kind of arena where you’re attracting and encouraging really competent people who do a job well because that’s what they’re supposed to do, then you have to pay them a salary that’s commensurate with that.
  24. What I think of as ‘freakonomics’ is mostly storytelling around an idea – not a theme but an idea. I like ideas much more than themes. Themes are boring. Themes are, ‘Wool is back,’ but ideas are, ‘Why is wool back?’
  25. I was a math and science kid in school, but I ended up going the route of writing and music in college.
  26. I think the most fundamental error we make is mistaking a noisy, anomalous event for the norm. This happens all the time – in the stock market, in reports of crime and natural disaster, etc. The fact is that big, noisy, anomalous events catch our attention because they’re anomalous, which isn’t a problem in and of itself.
  27. A strange thing happens when Spielberg discusses his own work. His degree of self-criticism seems a direct reflection of each film’s box-office performance. You will not catch him complaining that the audience ‘didn’t get’ a film; if it didn’t do well, it generally didn’t deserve to.
  28. If the world gets a lot hotter in a hurry and the primary aim is to cool it down, then the current plan of carbon mitigation will almost certainly not be effective. It’ll be too little, too late, and too optimistic – in large part because the atmospheric half-life of CO2 is roughly 100 years.
  29. The things you think that really change your life a lot, don’t.
  30. We’re all biased, right, in many different ways – politically, religiously, ideologically, the way our family raised us – and that’s fine. Nobody wants to live in a world where everybody thinks exactly the same. The key, though, is to try to figure out where your biases are holding you back from solving problems.
  31. Cows and other ruminants are worse polluters than all of the transportation in the world, so all of us who try to cut down our carbon footprint by lessening our transportation would do far better by just consuming less beef.
  32. I like to bring my kids to the voting booth to show them how it works. I’ll let them draw their own conclusions as to how worthwhile it is.
  33. I believe that people generally want to be what we call good. They want to cooperate with people. They don’t want to steal; they don’t want to cheat. But everybody has a price. Everybody has an incentive.
  34. The movement toward choosing religion, rampant as it is, shouldn’t be surprising. Ours is an era marked by the desire to define – or redefine – ourselves.
  35. Of all the things that the digital revolution has produced, once of the coolest, simplest ones is you can now contact people who write books that you read. You used to have to write a letter to the publisher and hope they passed it along, which they never did.
  36. Most laws that we make to protect people from guns are usually ignored by the criminals and obeyed by the law-abiding people. And so I think that if you had better data, there’d be no one more in favor of it than law abiding gun owners because they don’t want to be smeared and lumped in with the criminals who use guns.
  37. Think small. Don’t pretend you know the answers. Experiment; get feedback. These are all the premises of ‘Think Like a Freak,’ really.
  38. If we treated politics like more of a profession, like it should be, we would all be a lot better off.
  39. A lot of people are scared of experimentation because they think you have to be scientists, or they’re also scared of it because it means that you have to admit that you don’t know the answer. A lot of people like to assume they know the solution to a problem when they don’t.
  40. We’re surrounded by big problems and people who have been attacking the same big problems for years and years and years and years, and often they’re not getting anywhere.
  41. What’s really the driver of talent is not raw ability. It’s not even just experience. It’s what’s called ‘deliberate practice,’ which is to say, if you do something a lot, you get really good at it.
  42. What would you rather do? Fix a small problem well or answer a small problem well or flail around at the big ones and pay a lot of lip service?
  43. ‘Freakonomics’ began with a ‘N.Y. Times Magazine’ profile I wrote about Steve Levitt. I was working on a book about ‘the psychology of money,’ and since Levitt’s an economist, my editor thought I’d be the guy to write about him. Fact is that Levitt has almost no interest in either psychology or money.
  44. I grew up in – I personally grew up in a gun culture. I grew up in upstate New York where most families had guns for hunting, target practice, whatever. The vast majority of people I knew never used their guns for any crime.
  45. People are being incentivized for the wrong things. We’ve heard about a lot – doctors for procedures rather than creating wellness or maintaining wellness.
  46. Statistics on religious affiliation are notoriously slippery: the government isn’t allowed to gather such data, and the membership claims of religious organizations aren’t entirely reliable.

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