People I (Mostly) Admire

People I (Mostly) Admire is hosted by Steven Levittthe iconoclastic University of Chicago economist and co-author of the Freakonomics book series, who tracks down other high achievers and asks questions that only he would think to ask. Guests include all-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, WNBA champion Sue Bird, Operation Warp Speed chief Moncef Slaoui, and neuroscientist/actress Mayim Bialik.

EPISODE

DATE

LENGTH

53
The Simple Economics of Saving the Amazon Rainforest

Everyone agrees that massive deforestation is an environmental disaster. But most of the standard solutions — scolding the Brazilians, invoking universal morality — ignore the one solution that might actually work. Originally released on Freakonomics Radio, Steve gives an update on what’s happened in the two years since this episode first ran.

11/26/2021
32:35
52
Max Tegmark on Why Superhuman Artificial Intelligence Won’t be Our Slave (Part 2)

He’s an M.I.T. cosmologist, physicist, and machine-learning expert, and once upon a time, almost an economist. Max and Steve continue their conversation about the existential threats facing humanity, and what Max is doing to mitigate our risk. The co-founder of the Future of Life Institute thinks that artificial intelligence can be the greatest thing to ever happen to humanity — if we don’t screw it up.

11/19/2021
31:46
51
Max Tegmark on Why Treating Humanity Like a Child Will Save Us All

How likely is it that this conversation is happening in more than one universe? Should we worry more about Covid or about nuclear war? Is economics a form of “intellectual prostitution?” Steve discusses these questions, and more, with Max, an M.I.T cosmologist, physicist, and machine-learning expert — who was once almost an economist. He also tells Steve why we should be optimistic about the future of humanity (assuming we move Earth to a larger orbit before the sun evaporates our oceans).

11/12/2021
47:56
50
Edward Miguel on Collecting Economic Data by Canoe and Correlating Conflict with Rainfall

He’s a pioneer of using randomized control experiments in economics — studying the long-term benefits of a $1 health intervention in Africa. Steve asks Edward, a Berkeley professor, about Africa’s long-term economic prospects, and how a parking-ticket-scandal in New York City led to a major finding on corruption around the world.

11/5/2021
54:26
49
Mathematician Sarah Hart on Why Numbers are Music to Our Ears

Playing notes on her piano, she demonstrates for Steve why whole numbers sound pleasing, why octaves are mathematically imperfect, and how math underlies musical composition. Sarah, a professor at the University of London and Gresham College, also talks with Steve about the gender gap in mathematics and why being interested in everything can be a problem.

10/29/2021
48:31
48
Marc Davis Can’t Stop Watching Basketball — But He Doesn’t Care Who Wins

His childhood dream of playing in the N.B.A. led him to a career as a referee. Marc is one of the league’s top performers after over 20 seasons, but he still reviews every single one of his calls. He talks with Steve about being scrutinized by players, fans, and management; how much work — and data — go into being fair; and why he talks about race with his colleagues and his kids.

10/22/2021
48:06
4
Ken Jennings on How a Midlife Crisis Led Him to Jeopardy! (People I Admire Ep. 4 Replay)

It was only in his late twenties that America’s favorite brainiac began to seriously embrace his love of trivia. Jeopardy!’s newest host also holds the show’s “Greatest of All Time” title. Steve digs into how Ken trained for the show, what it means to have a “geographic memory,” and why we lie to our children.

10/15/2021
49:11
2
Mayim Bialik on the Surprising Risks of Academia and Stability of Show Biz (People I Admire Ep. 2 Replay)

This new Jeopardy! host is best known for playing neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, but she has a rich life outside of her acting career too, as a teacher, mother — and a real-life neuroscientist. Steve learns more about this one-time academic and Hollywood non-conformist, who is both very similar to him and also quite his opposite.

10/8/2021
51:11
47
Robert Axelrod on Why Being Nice, Forgiving, and Provokable are the Best Strategies for Life

The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic game-theory problem. Robert, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has spent his career studying it — and the ways humans can cooperate, or betray each other, for their own benefit. He and Steve talk about the best way to play it and how it shows up in real world situations, from war zones to Steve’s own life.

10/1/2021
45:38
46
Amanda & Lily Levitt Share What It’s Like to be Steve’s Daughters

Steve shows a different side of himself in very personal interviews with his two oldest daughters. Amanda talks about growing up with social anxiety and her decision to not go to college, while Lily speaks candidly about her battle with anorexia and the conversation she had with Steve that led her to finally seek treatment.

9/24/2021
49:10
45
Leidy Klotz on Why the Best Solutions Involve Less — Not More

When we try to improve things, our first thought is often: What can we add to make this better? But Leidy, a professor of engineering, says we tend to overlook the fact that a better solution might be to take something away. He and Steve talk about examples from Leidy’s book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, and from their own lives.

9/17/2021
42:23
44
Edward Glaeser Explains Why Some Cities Thrive While Others Fade Away

An expert on urban economics and co-author of the new book Survival of the City, Ed says cities have faced far worse than Covid. Steve talks with the Harvard professor about why the slums of Mumbai function so well, high-quality housing in China sits empty, and declining cities hang on for so long.

9/10/2021
47:10
43
Arne Duncan Says All Kids Deserve a Chance — and Criminals Deserve a Second One

Former U.S. Secretary of Education, 3×3 basketball champion, and leader of an anti-gun violence organization are all on Arne’s resume. He’s also Steve’s neighbor. The two talk about teachers caught cheating in Chicago public schools and Steve shares a story he’s never told Arne, about a defining moment in the educator’s life.

9/3/2021
48:23
42
America’s Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up

A special episode: Steve reports on a passion of his. Most high-school math classes are still preparing students for the Sputnik era. Steve wants to get rid of the “geometry sandwich” and instead have kids learn what they really need in the modern era: data fluency. Originally broadcast on Freakonomics Radio, this episode includes an update from Steve about a project he launched to revamp the education system.

8/27/2021
43:43
41
Dr. Bapu Jena on Why Freakonomics Is the Best Medicine

He’s a Harvard physician and economist who just started a third job: host of the new podcast Freakonomics, M.D. He’s also Steve’s former student. The two discuss why medicine should embrace econ-style research, the ethics of human-challenge trials, and Bapu’s role in one of Steve’s, ahem, less-than-successful experiments.

8/20/2021
41:33
40
Harold Pollack on Why Managing Your Money Is as Easy as Taking Out the Garbage

He argues that personal finance is so simple all you need to know can fit on an index card. How will he deal with Steve’s suggestion that Harold’s nine rules for managing money are overly complicated? Harold and Steve also talk about gun violence — a topic Harold researches as a public-policy professor at the University of Chicago — and they propose some radical ideas for reducing it.

8/13/2021
47:28
39
Aicha Evans Wants You to Take Your Eyes Off the Road

She’s the C.E.O. of Zoox, an autonomous vehicle company. Steve asks Aicha about the big promises the A.V. industry hasn’t yet delivered — and the radical bet Zoox is making on a driverless future. Plus, Steve wants to know how she’s maintained her spark.

8/6/2021
49:46
38
Sendhil Mullainathan Explains How to Generate an Idea a Minute (Part 2)

Steve continues his conversation with his good friend, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, and fellow University of Chicago economist. Sendhil breaks down the hypothesis of his book Scarcity, explains why machines aren’t competition for human intelligence, and tells Steve why it’s important to appreciate other people’s good ideas before developing your own.

7/30/2021
37:29
37
Sendhil Mullainathan Thinks Messing Around Is the Best Use of Your Time

He’s a professor of computation and behavioral science at the University of Chicago, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, and author. Steve and Sendhil laugh their way through a conversation about the importance of play, the benefits of change, and why we remember so little about the books we’ve read — and how Sendhil’s new app solves this problem.

7/23/2021
53:25
36
How Rahm Emanuel Would Run the World

In this interview, first heard on Freakonomics Radio last year, Steve talks with the former top adviser to presidents Clinton and Obama, about his record — and his reputation. And Rahm explains that while he believes in the power of the federal government, as former mayor of Chicago, he says that cities are where problems really get solved.

7/16/2021
43:53
35
David Epstein Knows Something About Almost Everything

He’s been an Arctic scientist, a sports journalist, and is now a best-selling author of science books. His latest, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, makes the argument that early specialization does not give you a head start in life. David and Steve talk about why frustration is a good sign, and why the 10,000-hour rule is definitely not a rule.

7/9/2021
52:01
34
Maya Shankar Is Changing People’s Behavior — and Her Own

She used to run a behavioral unit in the Obama administration, and now has a similar role at Google. Maya and Steve talk about the power (and limits) of behavioral economics and also how people respond to change — the topic of her new podcast A Slight Change of Plans.

7/2/2021
47:20
33
Travis Tygart Is Coming for Cheaters — Just Ask Lance Armstrong

He’s the C.E.O. of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which, under his charge, exposed the most celebrated American cyclist as a cheater. And Steve’s been studying cheaters for the last 25 years, so he’s also excited to talk to Travis about the incentives to cheat and the advances in testing technology — and offers his services as an anti-doping data detective for the sport of horse racing.

6/25/2021
46:25
32
Angela Duckworth Explains How to Manage Your Goal Hierarchy

She’s the author of the bestselling book Grit, and a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology — a field Steve says he knows nothing about. But once Angela gives Steve a quick tutorial on “goal conflict,” he is suddenly a fan. They also talk parenting, self-esteem, and how easy it is to learn econometrics if you feel like it.

6/18/2021
52:07
31
Peter Leeson on Why Trial-by-Fire Wasn’t Barbaric and Why Pirates Were Democratic

He’s an economist who studies even weirder things than Steve. They discuss whether economics is the best of the social sciences, and why it’s a good idea to get a tattoo of a demand curve on your bicep.

6/11/2021
47:50
30
Dambisa Moyo Says Foreign Aid Can’t Solve Problems, but Maybe Corporations Can

The African-born economist has written four bestselling books, including Dead Aid, which Bill Gates described as “promoting evil.” In her new book about corporate boards, Dambisa uses her experience with global corporations to explore how they can better meet society’s demands. And she explains to Steve why, even as a Harvard and Oxford-educated economist, her goal in life might sound “a little bit like a Miss America pageant.”

6/4/2021
44:02
29
Bruce Friedrich Thinks There’s a Better Way to Eat Meat

Levitt rarely interviews advocates, but the founder of the Good Food Institute is different. Once an outspoken — and sometimes outlandish — animal-rights activist, Bruce has come to believe that market-driven innovation and scientific advancement are the best ways to reduce global meat consumption. Steve and Bruce talk about the negative externalities of factory-farmed meat, and why Bruce gave up antics like streaking at Buckingham Palace.

5/28/2021
45:39
28
Professor Carl Hart Argues All Drugs Should Be Legal — Can He Convince Steve?

As a neuroscientist and psychology professor at Columbia University who studies the immediate and long-term effects of illicit substances, Carl Hart believes that all drugs — including heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine — should be legalized. Steve talks to Carl about his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, and Carl tells Steve why decriminalizing drugs is as American as apple pie.

5/21/2021
45:13
27
Daniel Kahneman on Why Our Judgment is Flawed — and What to Do About It

Nobel laureate, best-selling author, and groundbreaking psychologist Daniel Kahneman is also a friend and former business partner of Steve’s. In discussing Danny’s new book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, the two spar over inconsistencies in criminal sentencing and Danny tells Steve that “Your attitude is unusual” — no surprise there.

5/14/2021
44:05
26
Memory Champion Nelson Dellis Helps Steve Train His Brain

He’s one of the world’s leading competitors, having won four U.S. memory tournaments and holding the record for most names memorized in 15 minutes (235!). But Nelson Dellis claims he was born with an average memory and that anyone can learn his tricks. Steve gives Nelson’s techniques a shot, without much hope — and is surprised by the result.

5/7/2021
36:46
25
Sam Harris: “Spirituality Is a Loaded Term.”

He’s a cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher who has written five best-selling books. Sam Harris also hosts the Making Sense podcast and helps people discover meditation through his Waking Up app. Sam explains to Steve how to become spiritual as a skeptic and commit to never lying again.

4/30/2021
43:49
6
Nathan Myhrvold: “I Am Interested in Lots of Things, and That’s Actually a Bad Strategy.” (Rebroadcast)

He graduated high school at 14, and by 23 had several graduate degrees and was a research assistant with Stephen Hawking. He became the first chief technology officer at Microsoft (without having ever studied computer science) and then started a company focused on big questions — like how to provide the world with clean energy and how to optimize pizza-baking. Find out what makes Nathan Myhrvold’s fertile mind tick, and which of his many ideas Steve Levitt likes the most.

4/23/2021
49:36
24
Amaryllis Fox: “What Does This New Version of Mutually Assured Destruction Look Like?”

She spent nearly a decade as an undercover C.I.A. operative working to prevent terrorism. More recently, she hosted The Business of Drugs on Netflix. Amaryllis Fox — now Kennedy — explains why intelligence work requires empathy, and she soothes Steve’s fears about weapons of mass destruction.

4/16/2021
58:23
23
Greg Norman & Mark Broadie: Why Golf Beats an Orgasm and Why Data Beats Everything

Steve Levitt is obsessed with golf — and he’s pretty good at it too. As a thinly-veiled ploy to improve his own game, Steve talks to two titans of the sport: Greg “The Shark” Norman, who was the world’s top-ranked golfer for more than six years; and Mark Broadie, a Columbia professor whose data analysis changed how pros play the game.

4/9/2021
42:30
22
Sal Khan: “If It Works for 15 Cousins, It Could Work for a Billion People.”

Khan Academy grew out of Sal Khan’s online math tutorials for his extended family. It’s now a platform used by more than 115 million people in 190 countries. So what does Khan want to do next? How about reinventing in-school learning, too? Find out why Steve nearly moved to Silicon Valley to be part of Khan’s latest venture.

4/2/2021
44:18
21
Pete Docter: “What If Monsters Really Do Exist?”

He’s the chief creative officer of Pixar, and the Academy Award-winning director of Soul, Inside Out, Up, and Monsters, Inc. Pete Docter and Steve talk about Pixar’s scrappy beginnings, why it costs $200 million to make an animated film, and the movie moment that changed Steve’s life.

3/26/2021
45:44
20
John Donohue: “I’m Frequently Called a Treasonous Enemy of the Constitution.”

He’s a law professor with a Ph.D. in economics and a tendency for getting into fervid academic debates. Over 20 years ago, he and Steve began studying the impact of legalized abortion on crime. John and Steve talk about guns, the death penalty, the heat they took from their joint research, and why it’s frustratingly difficult to prove truth in the social sciences.

3/19/2021
39:14
19
Marina Nitze: “If You Googled ‘Business Efficiency Consultant,’ I Was the Only Result.”

At 27— and without a college degree — she was named chief technology officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Today, Marina Nitze is trying to reform the foster care system. She tells Steve how she hacked the V.A.’s bureaucracy, opens up about her struggle with Type 1 diabetes, and explains how she was building websites for soap opera stars when she was just 12 years old.

3/12/2021
38:27
18
Robert Sapolsky: “I Don’t Think We Have Any Free Will Whatsoever.”

He’s one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, with a focus on the physiological effects of stress. (For years, he spent his summers in Kenya, alone except for the baboons he was observing.) Steve asks Robert why we value human life over animals, why he’s lost faith in the criminal-justice system, and how to look casual when you’re about to blow-dart a very large and potentially unhappy primate.

3/5/2021
43:04
17
Emily Oster: “I Am a Woman Who Is Prominently Discussing Vaginas.”

In addition to publishing best-selling books about pregnancy and child-rearing, Emily Oster is a respected economist at Brown University. Over the course of the pandemic, she’s become the primary collector of data about Covid-19 in schools. Steve and Emily discuss how she became an advocate for school reopening, how economists think differently from the average person, and whether pregnant women really need to avoid coffee.

2/26/2021
44:36
16
Joshua Jay: “Humans Are So, So Easy to Fool.”

He’s a world-renowned magician who’s been performing since he was seven years old. But Joshua Jay is also an author, toy maker, and consultant for film and television. Steve Levitt talks to him about how magicians construct tricks, how Joshua’s academic studies of magic have influenced Levitt’s life, and whether Jesus might have been a magician.

2/19/2021
42:58
15
Tim Harford: “If You Can Make Sure You’re Not An Idiot, You’ve Done Well.”

He’s a former World Bank economist who became a prolific journalist and the author of one of Steve Levitt’s favorite books, The Undercover Economist. Tim Harford lives in England, where he’s made it his mission to help the public understand statistics. In their conversation, Steve gives Tim some feedback on his new book, The Data Detective, contemplates if it’s possible to tell great stories with data, and Tim explains how making mistakes can be fun. 

2/12/2021
42:30
14
Yul Kwon (Part 2): “Hey, Do You Have Any Bright Ideas?”

He’s so fascinating that Steve Levitt brought him back for a second conversation. Yul Kwon currently works at Google, but he’s been a lawyer, political organizer, government regulator, organ donation activist, and Survivor winner. Steve asks Yul why he’s so altruistic, how Google and Apple are helping track COVID-19, and whether the best way to pick a president might be a reality show.

2/5/2021
29:22
13
Yul Kwon: “Don’t Try to Change Yourself All at Once.”

He has been a lawyer, an instructor at the F.B.I. Academy, the owner of a frozen-yogurt chain, and a winner of the TV show Survivor. Today, Kwon works at Google, where he helped build tools to track the spread of COVID-19. But things haven’t always come easily for him. Steve Levitt talks to Kwon about his debilitating childhood anxieties, his compulsion to choose the hardest path in life, and how Kwon used his obsession with game theory to stage a come-from-behind victory on Survivor.

1/29/2021
35:13
12
Sue Bird: “You Have to Pay the Superstars.”

She is one of the best basketball players ever. She’s won multiple championships, including four Olympic gold medals and four W.N.B.A. titles — the most recent in 2020, just before turning 40. She also helped negotiate a landmark contract for the league’s players. Sue Bird tells Steve Levitt the untold truth about clutch players, her thoughts about the pay gap between male and female athletes, and what it means to be part of the first gay couple in ESPN’s The Body Issue.

1/22/2021
40:25
11
Paul Romer: “I Figured Out How to Get Myself Fired From the World Bank.”

For many economists — Steve Levitt included — there is perhaps no greater inspiration than Paul Romer, the now-Nobel Laureate who at a young age redefined the discipline and has maintained a passion for introducing new ideas to staid debates. Levitt finds out what makes Romer a serial “quitter,” why you can’t manufacture big ideas, and what happened when Romer tried to start a charter city.

1/8/2021
34:10
10
Suzanne Gluck: “I’m a Person Who Can Convince Other People to Do Things”

She might not be a household name, but Suzanne Gluck is one of the most powerful people in the book industry. Her slush pile is a key entry point to the biggest publishers in the U.S., and the authors she represents have sold more than 100 million books worldwide. Steve Levitt talks with Gluck — his own agent — about negotiating a deal, advising prospective authors, and convincing him to co-write Freakonomics.

12/25/2020
36:11
9
Moncef Slaoui: “It’s Unfortunate That It Takes a Crisis for This to Happen”

Born in Morocco and raised mostly by a single mother, Moncef Slaoui is now one of the world’s most influential scientists. As the head of Operation Warp Speed — the U.S. government’s Covid-19 vaccine program — Slaoui has overseen the development and distribution of a new vaccine at a pace once deemed impossible. Steve Levitt finds out how the latest generation of vaccines improve on their predecessors, why “educated intuition” is important in innovation, and what we can do to be better prepared for future pandemics.

12/11/2020
36:36
8
Peter Attia: “I Definitely Lost a Lot of IQ Points That Day”

He’s been an engineer, a surgeon, a management consultant, and even a boxer. Now he’s a physician focused on the science of longevity. Peter Attia talks with Steve Levitt about the problem with immortality, what’s missing from our Covid response, and why nicotine is underrated.

11/27/2020
38:25
7
Caverly Morgan: “I Am Not This Voice. I Am Not This Narrative”

She showed up late and confused to her first silent retreat, but Caverly Morgan eventually trained for eight years in silence at a Zen monastery. Now her mindfulness-education program Peace in Schools is part of the high-school curriculum in Portland, Ore. Steve Levitt finds out what daily life is like in a silent monastery, why teens find it easier than adults to learn meditation, and what happy children can teach their parents.

11/13/2020
38:39