Archives for academia



How to Think Like a Freak — and Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest podcast is called “How to Think Like a Freak — and Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions.”  (You can subscribe to the podcast at  iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) In it, we talk about the imminent release of our new book, Think Like a Freak, and field reader questions about prestige, university life, and (yum yum) bacon. Along the way, we touch upon Michelangelo, George Bernard Shaw, and Steve Levitt‘s deep disdain of book tours:

LEVITT: I don’t know why but there’s something about book tours, which undo me. I just become dark.

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Is Academia Like a Drug Gang?

In Freakonomics, Dubner and Levitt wrote about how working for a drug gang is like working for McDonald’s. On LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog, Alexandre Afonso writes about how the academic labor market also resembles a drug gang:

Academic systems rely on the existence of a supply of “outsiders” ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail….The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core  of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics. 

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Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest — David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants – came out this week.   Like every other book by Gladwell, it is already a best-seller. And having read – and very much enjoyed — the book, I can see why. Gladwell once again presents a variety of interesting stories, this time centered on the question of whether underdogs are as disadvantaged as we believe (the opening story on David and Goliath – which makes this observation – is worth the price of admission).   My sense – from the few reviews I have seen – is that critics have primarily focused on whether the argument they think Gladwell is making is valid.  I am going to argue that this approach misses the fact that the stories Gladwell tells are simply well worth reading (i.e., these stories are interesting and make you think). 

The range of stories Gladwell presents is quite impressive. From the opening biblical story to a discussion of the number of students in a school classroom, the impact of dyslexia, the curing of leukemia, the battle for Civil Rights, French revolutionaries during World War II, etc… One has to wonder: where does Gladwell find these stories? Read More »



The Verdict Is in: Sociology and Political Science Deserve the Hatchet

Last week, I asked Freakonomics.com readers “Which Social Science Should Die?” The results are in. Thank you for your clear-eyed, sober judgment. Recall that some of you answered in the comments (see previous link) and others visited the on-line poll (which is still open). As of this writing, more than 1,200 votes have been registered. 

And the winner — er, “LOSER”(!) is: 

Let’s Kill Off Sociology and Political Science!

As you can see from the chart below, nearly 50 percent believed that college/university presidents should eliminate sociology. Nearly 30 percent thought poli sci should be shuttered. [Editor's note: it is perhaps not surprising that Freakonomics readers wouldn't vote to eliminate economics.] Read More »



Adventures in Ideas: Which Social Science Should Die?

Freakonomics Readers,

I’d like to enlist you in a debate that, to date, is mostly occurring within the academy.

Imagine that, in order to respond both to budgetary pressures and calls for greater relevance of the American academy, College & University Presidents are re-examining their social science disciplines. They have decided to eliminate one major discipline. In your opinion, which of the following is no longer as relevant to the mission of research and education, and should be eliminated as a consequence? Read More »



Another Salvo in the Tenure Debate

Should professors have tenure? The question, debated recently on this blog, misses the mark—as do the usual answers, whether “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.”

On the “no” side, it is argued that tenure protects incompetent spongers. A very reliable (tenured) colleague, at a university that shall remain nameless, tells me of professors whose interests are no longer intellectual and who spend their time playing the real estate market. Their research productivity, measured in grant dollars or papers, is low; thus, the university is angry. Their teaching is also substandard, yet not quite abysmal enough to get them fired. To urge them to resign, the department punishes them… by assigning extra teaching!

On the “yes” side, it is argued that tenure protects academic freedom. That point is made by my colleague on this blog Dan Hamermesh. Ten years ago I agreed with him. I would not have imagined my future self happy as an associate professor at Olin College of Engineering: Olin offers six-year renewable contracts instead of tenure. Now I see Olin’s system as a reasonable alternative to tenure, for I no longer believe that tenure supports academic freedom. Read More »