Quite Possibly the Most Flattering E-Mail Ever

Many people have written many nice things to us over the years. (Of course some people have written some not-so-nice things too.) But the following is my favorite, or at least my new favorite:

Good afternoon Stephen,

I am a psychologist by education and spend my professional life as a consultant in the field of higher education and an executive coach.  I spend my personal life as a mother, wife, sister, daughter, and friend.  In all these roles I: (1) have many opportunities to improve and (2) try to express my gratitude to those who help me.  It is for these two reasons that I send this email.

I started listening to your podcasts because I liked your book, Freakonomics, and appreciate the opportunity to learn about things that I don’t have the time to study myself.  For the work that you and your collaborators do researching and telling interesting and informative stories, I am grateful, as I had expected to be.  This email, though, is about something else.

Because many people are quick to stop listening to anybody who holds a differing perspective, I have been taken by the curious and open-minded way in which you discuss topics with others.  Sometimes I am good at this, while other times my mannerisms and my tone give me away — exposing the fact that I’m not doing a great job of learning about an opposing view.  This is a skill that I would like to improve and one that I hope my children (11 and 9-years-old) develop.  So, using your podcasts as a model, our family is working on asking questions and constructing responses in a curious and open-minded way.  And, we have turned your last name into a verb…

dubner (verb): to engage in a curious and open-minded conversation​.

It is for this reason that I write to express my unexpected gratitude.​

With kind regards and sincere appreciation,

Kara E. Penfield, Ph.D.
President, Penfield Consulting Group

Thanks, Kara. I am truly flattered! The only problem is that I don’t feel I really live up to the definition as well as I’d like — i.e., while I of course try to be as curious and open-minded as possible, I often find, on listening back to interviews, that my priors and biases are stronger than I realized in the moment. So I am constantly looking for ways to dislodge them. Maybe having my name attached to this pursuit will be just the incentive I need!


Maybe Kara will be able to share some tips with you after they've been Dubnering for a while!


This is so lovely - I'm totally stealing the 'dubner' verb!


After time, "dubner" will become an adjective, meaning "one who dubns". Much like "bant" became a term meaning "to diet", after William Banting.


Ha I was thinking Levitt would be the adjective


Ms. Penfield must dismiss the perception that Freakonomics embraces the stereotypes of free market ideologues. "Dislodging", as Dubner identifies it, is warranted, IMO, based on posts about (1) Access to medical care as a cause for increased smoking by poor pregnant women (2) Legal discrimination against restaurant wait staff based on national origin/ethnic identity (3) "Research' that aims to dismantle public pensions (based on faulty generalizations and scare tactics) (4) Abortions' effect on the size of the urban criminal population (with no associated correlations relating to affluenza crimes) (5) charter schools (which, in reality, make up a proven, inept and corrupt industry that privatizes public schools for takeover by the 0.2% and that undermines democracy).
Freakonomics might warrant labeling as open-minded if they, say, posted about the decreases in U.S. productivity caused by the financial sector, the taxpayer rip-off from charitable spending that is vulture philanthropy e.g. social impact bonds, the unfairness of carried interest, the loss of protections and amenities for communities when oligarchs, accountable to no one, politically succeed in defunding courts, police, parks, etc., the hypocrisy of education deformers sending their children to schools that reject their exploitive school design.



Comparing items from Think like a Freak and Superfreakonomics:
Flying miles and road miles in TLF the miles travelled by air or road (page 179) results in a similar number of miles per one death – because number of miles on the road goes to about 3 trillion miles (all vehicles combined and not including miles for passengers as in ‘passenger-miles’) compared to about half a trillion air miles . . . . . compare page 65 in SFK “Per mile, driving is much more dangerous that flying . . . . . . “
This basically highlights even further how data should be analysed . . . . .

In TLF the section regarding suicides seems to have some correlation to the section regarding suicide bombers / terrorists . . . . both come from somewhat better education, privileged and income groups. So, does the group discussed at length in SFK have a more productive / purposeful suicide solution than the group discussed in TLF? After all, the terrorists have some added incentives such as religion, action, passion which can make up for / replace some of the feelings the TLF group has . . . . basically no purpose to life, emptiness or whatever . . . . . . .
And the looking at TLF and SFK . . . .is there a correlation between criminals and terrorists? Criminals seem to come from less privileged lower income groups in contrast to terrorists. So does this mean criminals to not have the incentive, opportunity , talent or whatever to upgrade to terrorism? . . . . .

In Thunks a specific thunk poses: “Should a terrorist just be called a murderer?”
Here are a few more for testing:
“If you don’t know how clever you are, are you stupid?”
“Is it more of a failure to fail to get to the top of a mountain and come home safely than to reach the summit and die on the way back?”
“If a Rolls Royce was hanging over a canyon by a thread, would the thread be more valuable than the Rolls Royce?”
“If you believe your own lies, are they lies?”
“Are ‘facts’ that turn out wrong still part of your knowledge?”
“Could you kill yourself as an experiment?”
Whether by design or fluke, you have covered some of the small sample of thunks above; and others beside. And you may not even realise it as yet!!

Suggest you also refer to a book call Thunk. Ian Gilbert wrote this and Dr Andrew Curran wrote the “I – Like” for it. Thunks can make you think and this might be a good idea even though you may have to run for your life if your thunk upsets somebody . . . . .
Thanks for the thunks you throw out there; maybe I am not learning much from you but I am having a good time . . . .
So now I will need to find When to Rob a Bank . . . . .
Some many years ago before internet, CCTV, digital etc a lady friend figured out how to rob a bank. This was precipitated by her having to standing in long queues at the local bank once or twice a week to do the company banking business. So to amuse herself she checked off the security angles, entrances, exits, staff movements, timing etc etc. And she had lots of time to do this. You may know – or remember – what bank queues could be like -- and despite digital still are. The longer the queue the fewer the service personnel is a general rule . . . but then there seems to be a tipping point: When the queue gets really long every service point gets manned by at least one bank employee from a pool they keep especially for this; employees who cannot answer questions or deal with queries . . .and this does something else to the queues . . .
But I digress. Once she had worked out how and when to rob this bank – and had even made sketches and timetables – she told one or two people about it. Her approach was real soft – no guns, masks, shouting, violence; just plain logic with some smarts thrown in. A few weeks later she had a visit by the special security police, or agents, who escorted her to a police station where she was interviewed at great length. The agents were not convinced that she was simply doing this as a brain exercise, and to amuse herself, while standing in a queue. They said that her plans were too detailed and potentially workable -- that it had to be deliberate. After some hours she was allowed to go but she had some surveillance from there on every times she went from work to the bank – and especially in the bank – for some while.
The bank should have engaged her as a consultant in safety and security; after all they used her musings to improve safety in that, and other, branches . . . .

PS Save some time and money and do not buy Thunks. You probably know these dudes already and they can lend you a copy. Or you could just check: independenthinking.com
All the best for whatever you come up with next . . . . .
PPS: If a bookstore has no books on chaos, but have some on order, is that OK?
If you are alive today, is it because you survived family planning?

Mario Viljoen



Freakonomics..."Curious and open-minded discussion" ...?
(1) Levitt post, "Fryer and Levitt Go Ghetto" (read comments that follow the post)
(2) Real Climate, "An Open letter to Levitt" (read the 800 comments that follow the letter's posting)