How to Think Like a Freak — and Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions (Ep. 166)

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Freakonomics_ThinkLikeAFreak_2Our 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.

What kind of questions do we field?

Alicia Robison writes:

I’m sure you have noticed the new society fetish with bacon. … My question is what are the social/economic/health benefits of all this bacon weirdness?”

Adil Khimani asks:

“What if you guys had a section on your website to get hold of you, and had perhaps three levels of priority. … VIP questions can be guaranteed to be answered on air, unless extremely inappropriate, but also carry a $10 charge to submit. A second tier of question that may get answered would cost $5, and lastly you could have the good old free model that will receive the least of your attention.”

And Meredith Summers asks:

“I wonder if it would be at all possible to quantify in financial terms Steven Levitt’s contribution to the University of Chicago?”

If you want to check out some other FAQ episodes of Freakonomics Radio, you can find them here, here, here, and here. And if you want to catch us on the upcoming book tour that Levitt dreads — we’ll be in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Wales, and London — the details can be found here. Come say hello!


I like listening to your podcasts each week but I thought you were somewhat disingenuous during this podcast when Meredith Summers asked about the impact of your fame on the University of Chicago and your position there. You said that you don't do the podcast for the money (multiple times) and while you probably make nearly nothing directly off of the podcast you certainly make a lot of money from the fame and connections the podcast brings you. Would as many people buy your books if you didn't have the podcast? You can't just say you aren't gaining something from it when you most certainly are.


Agreed. It seemed super disingenuous to suggest it has nothing to do with money. Then why advertise the book constantly on the podcast or even on the extremely obvious pop-up advertisement when you visit the site. Additionally the fact that they don't make much money doing it is far from proof that they don't do it for money.

Plenty of for-profit business fail to make money, that doesn't mean money wasn't the purpose of starting and running the business. In fact many internet web sites trying to make a profit focus on getting users first and then try to figure out how to monetize the traffic to their site. Perhaps Levitt and Dubner have simply failed in their effort to make money with the podcast...


As a big fan, I was Impressed by how fast I could be turned off with your program by your condescending treatment of Alicia Robison. Too bad.


Yeah, that was weird. They didn't even try to seriously answer the question. Their answer was pretty much just "LOL vegetarians are dumb"


Thank you, thank you, thank you for that comment Peter. I just discovered this podcast a week ago and have been listening to it constantly. I have probably listened to10 episodes in three days. I teach Science communication and writing at a university and was thinking today how I would recommend this podcast to my students. I was your new biggest fan. Than I heard this segment and was so unbelievably turned off by how you didn't even answer the question and then you completely discarded and insulted this woman who posed what I felt was an interesting, intelligent, and fun question. I think Alicia deserves an apology, and we all deserve an actual answer to this question. I love this podcast, please don't ruin it with such condescending, arrogant, and dismissive banter. And Alicia, I think you're amazing. Great writing and great question.

Elaine Fine

I answered a question you posed on this podcast elsewhere, so I'll answer it again here. Perhaps the reason the University of Chicago doesn't negotiate ownership of books by its faculty and does hold ownership of patents by its faculty has something to do with the fact that there's one US Patent Office, and there are thousands and thousands of publishers who own the copyright to the thousands of books the U of C faculty members publish. It would also be the case with music.

I wonder what the situation is for visual artists?

Andrew Adelman

Re: Bacon Fetish. Bacon has become hip because of the invention of Lipator and other Statins. I think the timing apotheosis of bacon and the prevalence of pharmaceuticals that fight high cholesterol is too perfect to be coincidental.


Jesus. Ketogenic diet. Scientific studies. Cholesterol and the actual link to heart disease relating to LDL particle number and size. Do your research. Free fatty acids such as that are utilized as ketones or through fat oxidation.

The reason that little girl shouldn't be taken serious is because of the ignorance.


The "little girl" is on the right track. Ketogenic diets are helpful for rare neurologic diseases. Dietary cholesterol causes most heart disease. The egg and dairy industry mislead everyone.


Re: the bacon conversation.. Levitt is being a hypocrite here. It's healthy because it's fat? Research what saturated fat does to your circulatory system.. and you're using intuition to presume that the monstrous push towards bacon lately in everything can't impact pork or bacon production? Then you end being disrespectful towards her vegetarian beliefs. And who in this conversation is being closed minded? I submit it's Levitt.

Freak Fan

I was a little disappointed with this episode, and I only point this out because you guys have generally set such a high bar. I think in general the bacon question may have been a poor choice since it wasn't so much a question as a rant against bacon, and clearly Levitt has some deep emotional attachment to the issue. It's fine that you choose to address it and I think you started out in the right direction, emphasizing the thought process to approach such a problem and need to remove emotional bias; however, I feel like it quickly fell apart into not a very freaky FAQ episode, in which you just kind of fell into an ad hominem fallacy against the asker, who's question you choose. That combined with a general overabundance of self promotion just made this episode ring kind of hollow for me. I don't mean to complain about a free service; but I absolutely love freakonomics and I felt obligated to voice my views. Thanks for making this!

-Freak Fan



Like others, the handling of the bacon topic seemed decidedly unfreaky to me. No real investigation or challenge of the premise of the questions. No real investigation into the data associated with the question itself (e.g. USDA tracks total count of pork slaughters that are subject to USDA inspection, even if the hog isn't inspected). There was no attempt at rational explanations associated with demand (e.g. marketing analysis of the National hog farmers or Pork councils). No discussion of popular fads... and no discussion of how flavorings for thing like "bacon infused bloody Mary" actually have neglible overall health impact when compared to the cumulative effect of lifestyle choices (e.g. 3 slices a day for 20 years, which aren't as influenced by short-term fads). Seemed like there was a lot of freaky ways you could have taken the question, but instead you talked about it, then dropped it as a biased question (it was) and ironically decided to not engage in convincing her to change her mind (in which case, why feature it on your podcast?).



Have you heard of vegetables? Fruit? They're mostly carbohydrates. Something tells me that you should have done more research/thinking before saying that we should choose bacon over carbohydrates. You're right that nutrition research is evolving, but the answer is more nuanced than your biased and incomplete answer to a biased question. I love bacon and think we should keep eating it, but people who took your incomplete advice to heart are now at higher risk for a host of diseases.


Good podcast, alas I think some needed followup is required:

Regarding answering "I don't know" to STORIES being told to either children or adults (ex. was music playing in the car during the story? when it wasn't cited as such). IMO, "NO" is the more obvious true answer to something not revealed in a story by an author. If the creator of that story universe thought music was important enough to be playing, he/she would have stated it.

In general, if there is no evidence presented that something happened, "I don't know" might be the technically correct, agnostic answer, but it is much less reflective of the (lack of) evidence the listener was provided.

It appears these people are indeed internally saying "I don't know" but when asked a YES/NO question, the two implicit options are too much reinforced as the only correct possible answers (even if you give them a silly IDK third option), as we were taught to respond not only in the classroom, but since birth to respond with YES or NO to such questions for ease of understanding.

In my opinion, a better designed experiment wouldn't use stories, instead it would present simply stated fact questions that have a 50/50 chance of being true or not. Something like "does a Massasauga fly? ('s a snake) or "was Charles Darwin born on an even date" (YES...Feb 12...same as Lincoln)

I think you'll feel as I do, that these questions definitely stimulate an "I don't know" response much more than the story based question examples in your podcast. Fact based questions also put the human mind in a more objective mind state, a state which seems to me better served by saying "I don't know" than a let's pretend mind state.

As for the hardest 3 words to say, I vote for "I was wrong." Saying "I don't know." is a breeze compared to that self deprecating zinger!


Katie McGinn

I have question concerning gun control.
I recently read an interesting article about using "smart guns" as alternatives to real guns. Would this, in your opinion, be beneficial in decreasing gun violence? If so, how could you make this solution happen?


hi -
love your show and the Freak-quently asked questions section.
I'm a medical resident in my final year of Emergency Medicine training and it took me ~13 years to get here... and I see every days young students killing themselves to have a chance at 'making it to medicine.' This troubles me, because the perception is that no other professions is good enough.

Could you explore why is it society is still so infatuated with medicine as a profession when it takes so much to get into the medical stream, and then to get a spot in residency, and finally when you're done; to fight tooth n' nail for an academic position at a university affiliated hospital (same 'publish or perish' mantra applies to MD's).

So why is that in a time when most people can diagnose themselves via Dr. Google , usually know more about the drug side effects than their internist or pharmacist; and when doctors are at such administrative/financial and medico-legal pressure ; why is that society is still so infatuated with medical doctors and push our youth towards sometimes unattainable goals?




Hey Dubner and Levitt,

So, there's been lots of studies about the effects of christmas and its consumerism on the economy, but I was wondering: What is the effect of religious dates when people actually deprive themselves from consuming? Does the Shabbat have a positive or a negative impact on the economy? What about Ramadan? And Lent in countries with a large number of christians? And Yom Kippur?

Thanks for the podcast, and have a nice day!