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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: Excuse me, gentlemen, I know a little bit about this “sport ball” of which you speak.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: What makes art “highbrow” or “lowbrow”?

DUCKWORTH: The vase with flowers is art. The portrait of this young woman is art. But what the hell is that blotch of red?

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen we have an email from an Anya Levitov.  

DUBNER: Okay. 

DUCKWORTH: “Dear Angela and Stephen, why is it that in the U.S., for a writer, a journalist, a university professor, or any other person of high standing in academia, it is okay to say, quote, ‘I don’t understand and don’t like opera?’ While in other places — Russia, France, Italy, et cetera — that would be interpreted as a sign of ignorance, and it would be quite an unacceptable statement for a public intellectual. And not just opera. Appreciating most forms of art — ballet, classical and jazz music, theater, independent cinema — is a basic requirement for being an intellectual. It would also not be considered acceptable to say that one loves junk food, or reads vampire novels.” Parentheses: “(Please send Steven Levitt my regards.)”

DUBNER: We should say: Steve Levitt is an avowed fan of vampire— What were those famous books called?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, Twilight?

DUBNER: Twilight. There you go. You love them as well, right?

DUCKWORTH: I didn’t know Levitt loved Twilight! 

DUBNER: The two of you can have a Twilight book club.

DUCKWORTH: I have to say more about that, but let me just read the last sentence of Anya’s email: “So, why in the U.S. are various forms of refined or acquired taste considered as a preference, and in most European countries, having these acquired tastes is a basic requirement for joining the intellectual elite? Thank you very much. Regards, Anya Levitov.” 

DUBNER: It’s a really interesting question, especially considering that not only does my longtime Freakonomics friend and co-author Steve Levitt, yes, likes junk food; yes, likes vampire novels; no, does not like museums—

DUCKWORTH: Or opera!

DUBNER: —or ballet, or any of those things — but I would say that you fall, maybe, a little bit more on the “Levitt” side than on the “Levitov” side, yes?

DUCKWORTH: I read the Twilight series in a week, Stephen, and I pulled, I think, four all-nighters. I remember being in the train station in Philadelphia, which is called 30th Street station, and I remember it was like being a drug addict. I was, like, frantically hunting through the Hudson News racks. And I was like, “Oh my God, they have to have New Moon. If they don’t have New Moon, I mean, Amazon can’t get it here until tomorrow. I need it right now!” So, yes, I loved that series. I’ve read it more than once. By the way, I want to ask Levitt if he’s Team Edward or Team Jacob.

DUBNER: I have heard those phrases—

DUCKWORTH: You don’t even know what I’m talking about. Holy schmoly.

DUBNER: I’m making a note to myself right now: “Find out Team Edward and Team who? Team Randolph?”

DUCKWORTH: Team Edward, which is my team, and then Team Jacob. I think Levitt’s a Team Edward.

DUBNER: We’ll have to figure that out. So, it’s an interesting question that Anya asks. Let’s just state the obvious: The United States, even though it has deep European roots, is very different from most European countries in many significant ways. We did a Freakonomics Radio series— We called it “American Culture,” but it was broader than that. The first episode was literally called “The U.S. Is Just Different — So Let’s Stop Pretending We’re Not.” The inspiration for that series was the fact that, when we’re talking about policy improvements — whether social policies, healthcare, education — so often there will be researchers, such as yourself, or economists, or others, who say, “Hey, here’s a system that works really well in Norway, or Denmark, or Sweden.” And our instinct is to say, “It’s amazing that it works so well there. Let’s bring it over here.”

DUCKWORTH: “Let’s import it.”  

DUBNER: Exactly. So, I came to ask myself, over and over again,”Why can’t we do that?” And the conclusion that we reached over time, after talking to a lot of different people — a cross-cultural psychologist named Michele Gelfand—

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, she’s great.

DUBNER: —but also economists, and cultural scholars, and so on. The conclusion that we came to is that, yeah, we’re really different on a lot of levels — culturally, but it extends to politics and policing. Our media is much more negative than just about any other country. Our capitalism is different. And so, it can be really hard to just slap some effective policy from Scandinavia onto our culture. So, that’s a kind of large answer to Anya’s question about, “Why aren’t things here the way I would expect them to be in Russia, France, and Italy, and so on?” But to answer her question, “Why is it acceptable to ignore these higher forms of art?” By the way, most of the forms of art she named — opera, ballet, classical music — they also have deep roots in Europe. I would say that many people who do think of themselves in this country as public intellectuals don’t ignore these art forms.

DUCKWORTH: Danny Kahneman’s a big ballet fan, by the way.

DUBNER: Now, again, not insignificant that he’s older and he’s got European roots. 

DUCKWORTH: Grew in up — what? France and Israel?

DUBNER: Exactly. But, you know, my argument would be that for the median American, these forms of art that Anya’s talking about are largely ignored. I’m not making a judgment here. You know, the example she raises of Steve Levitt and Angela Duckworth — you are esteemed professors at renowned universities, and you can embrace vampire novels without shame.

DUCKWORTH: Not a molecule of shame.

DUBNER: Love Actually, your favorite movie.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, Come on. Now we’re not talking about lowbrow.

DUBNER: Ah, excuse me.

DUCKWORTH: I will fully admit that Twilight has a feeling of, like, mass media, whatever, but Love Actually, I mean, that’s middlebrow at least! And what makes something highbrow? Why is it that opera is highbrow? Why is it that pop music — Taylor Swift, Adele — why is that not highbrow?

DUBNER: When I was a much younger person, I used to ask that very same question, because I grew up in a household where we paid a lot of attention to some of those forms of art. My mom was a ballerina before she got married—

DUCKWORTH: That is very cool, by the way.

DUBNER: —so she knew a lot about not only ballet, but also the classical music that ballet is often set to. So, yeah, I grew up in a home where there was, I would say, a relatively high appreciation of those forms. Although, not visual arts. My wife grew up in a home in New York City where they loved opera, ballet, theater, but also very, very much the visual arts. When she was growing up in the city, she went to the Museum of Modern Art probably once a week with her dad. But when I was much younger, I did think what you had asked, which is: What makes it highbrow? My kind of naive answer was: “Well, it’s highbrow when very few people like it.”

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s not a bad answer.  Not a lot of people, and also people who are generally at the higher end of the educational — I hesitate to say “socioeconomic,” because I think we know a lot of vulgar billionaires.

DUBNER: And, similarly, I’ve known a lot of people who are in a lower income strata who are absolutely entranced with visual arts, and opera, and ballet, and so on. 


DUBNER: It’s a different thing if you’re also talking about going to see these things live, because they happen to be extremely expensive. I mean, an opera ticket in New York City is going to cost you probably $150 to $500. But in terms of what makes something highbrow or lowbrow — this is not going to be quite fair, but I would say that those who love and embrace highbrow art forms are pretty good at making their realm feel exclusive. The art world does an amazingly good job of establishing these boundaries through which only a select few types of tastemakers are allowed. And so, yeah, I would say there’s a certain amount of pretension, exclusion.

DUCKWORTH: Like, a barrier to entry, maybe. If you want to take a less cynical view of it, it’s that it’s not accessible to, like, an 8-year-old, because you must acquire some skill or knowledge in order to appreciate said art form.  

DUBNER: Exactly. Let me just ask you about your preferences. In the last, let’s say, five years — since we just went through a couple years of pandemic where nobody went out much — how many times a year would you say you go to attend, or even just listen intensely to classical music, or go see a ballet, or opera? How many times a year, roughly?

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Opera: zero. Classical music: probably close to zero. But my husband, Jason, played viola all through college, and he does have an appreciation for classical music. But I have to laugh, because on the rare occasions on which Jason has dragged me to— So this is the thing, I always call it a “show.” He’s like, “We don’t call it a show.” I don’t even remember what the word is, but you don’t call it a show, somehow.

DUBNER: When Jason says something like that to you that sounds — in your rendering just now — like, it could be construed as slightly judge-y, how do you respond to that? How does that make you feel?

DUCKWORTH: We have previously discussed how I seem to not be able to express or feel embarrassment. I don’t feel even a blush of embarrassment for not knowing whatever you’re supposed to call a classical music “performance” — I guess you call them? I used to always also confuse, like, a symphony with an orchestra. He was like, “The orchestra is the collection of musicians that plays a symphony.”

DUBNER: Now, when he corrects you, does that make you more or less likely to want to attend a performance?

DUCKWORTH: Probably a neutral effect, Stephen. I’m not like, “Ooh, I guess I should become more sophisticated and start to learn all of this lingo.” Nor does it dissuade me. I do have to say that sitting there in those plush seats, I’m always like, “Oh my God, are there literally four movements? Jesus Christ. So long. And there are no words!”

DUBNER: So, what really needs to happen for Angela to love attending a classical music performance would be to simultaneously screen subtitles that are actually the text from your vampire novels.

DUCKWORTH: Yes! Which, I guess, sounds like opera. Isn’t that what opera is? It’s like classical music with words?

DUBNER: Maybe you are a closet opera fan. You just don’t even know it yet.

DUCKWORTH: I had a friend, years ago. She gave me a starter C.D. for the neophyte — for the uninitiated. Like, “Try this and then we’ll work you up to more sophisticated and difficult operas.” And I do remember playing it at least once and thinking, “I guess this isn’t bad.” But I didn’t start an opera habit. I do think that maybe the thing about these highbrow pleasures, it’s that there is a barrier to entry. There is a kind of investment that you have to make. It’s not like sugar, which just tastes good, untutored. You don’t have to tell a 2-year-old to like sugar.

DUBNER: It makes me think of something which is another huge part of our culture that is roundly ignored among many public intellectuals. And what I’m talking about now is sports. I think back to this really interesting conversation I had with a professor of comp lit and German studies at the University of Michigan. Her name is Silke-Maria Weineck. And she is German, and her partner is English, I believe — Stefan Szymanski — and he is a sports economist. They ended up collaborating on a book about sports in Detroit — since they both live in Michigan and teach at the University of Michigan. And she admitted that she knew very little and cared even less about sports, generally. I was interviewing her about a really interesting set of research she had done having to do with the archives of the Ford Motor Company. She discovered this correspondence that betrayed a deep racial discrimination within the Ford Company against a boxer named Joe Louis who was, at one point, maybe the most famous person in America.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was going to say, the famous Joe Louis, right?

DUBNER: He was a huge, huge icon. He was Black. He grew up in the American South, lived in Detroit, became a huge champion there. One of the boxers he beat was Max Schmeling, who was a representative of Nazi Germany. But I was talking to Weineck about how it was that she came to write about this when she didn’t care about sports at all. And she said, “Sport is the biggest global cultural practice.” I’ll read you a quick quote from her: “We in cultural studies, I think, have neglected it at our peril.” And I thought that was really interesting.

DUCKWORTH: Mm. Because it’s lowbrow?

DUBNER: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. If you know a lot about sports and care about it, you can bring all sorts of high-level interpretation and meaning. I’ve grown up liking sports, and I get a lot of pleasure from it, and I find it very interesting on a lot of levels, but I can also 100 percent identify with someone who grows up without sports and it just looks absurd. It’s grown men and women in these ridiculously brightly colored clothes, running around, doing things with balls that don’t seem to make sense. So, I totally get it. And here she was saying, “That’s kind of where I was. I’m glad I came in this back door, because I saw a lot of elements within sport that were really interesting for a cultural scholar.”

DUCKWORTH: It is so interesting to think of sports as being lowbrow because, by my definition, there is an investment that you have to make so that you can actually appreciate this thing. To me, the investment is pretty sizable. I’m getting off the plane on Friday — this is a long flight, cross-country, Seattle to Philadelphia — and in the few minutes between landing and getting all our stuff out of those overhead bins, there was a conversation that was struck up between the guy who was sitting next to me and the guy who was one seat behind him. And I’ve got to tell you: Within, like, two or three minutes, there was such “bonhomie.” There was such engagement. They were talking about some team.

DUBNER: Some ball thing.

DUCKWORTH: It was definitely about football. I can’t even reproduce this conversation, Stephen, because I don’t know a thing about football. I remember exiting, and I was thinking, “Wow, this might be the force that can bring this country together again.” These guys, they could have been best friends from college. I mean, they were so into this conversation. But the irony of all this is that I was coming from Seattle, where I’d seen Pete Carroll — the coach of the Seahawks — and given a talk to his team!

DUBNER: Were you tempted to say, “Excuse me, gentlemen, I know a little bit about this ‘sport ball’ of which you speak.”

DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly. I didn’t say that, because I actually know how little I know. Sports has always seemed to me like a kind of highbrow thing. And, by the way—

DUBNER: Really?

DUCKWORTH: Well, highbrow in the sense that it’s hard.

DUBNER: It’s got a language. It’s got a vernacular. It’s got a history.

DUCKWORTH: God, these guys were speaking fluent football, and I was, like, looking for Google Translate. And I want to say this, too — I don’t think it’s unrelated. When I met Pete Carroll the first time— It was now years ago, and I remember going to find out what it was that he was doing as a coach that, from a psychological perspective, bore on grit. Like, “How do you train growth mindset?” and so forth. Unexpectedly, he asked me to give a short talk to his players while I was there in Seattle. And I remember that I had previously — the week before — given almost the exact talk at Harvard for Colloquium. And so I just gave the same thing, not thinking to myself, “Well, Harvard faculty, N.F.L. football players…” Like, I didn’t have time to adjust my talk. The questions that were asked, and the thoughtfulness of their responses when it became a dialogue — you would not be able to tell me that those football players were any less intelligent than the Harvard faculty I had seen the week before. They were just as smart. They were just as sophisticated. I think what it teaches me is that, look: There’s golf, and there’s classical music, and there’s rap music, and there’s vampire novels. I think, if you are an outsider, and you don’t have the requisite vocabulary and the embedded knowledge to appreciate things, then it can look like a smarter thing to do. And I know that sounds weird, but I think of sports as something that I don’t really have the intelligence for. It’s just about what you don’t know.

DUBNER: I think the part of it that’s frustrating is: If it is something that you know, and like, and care about — the way I may know and like and care about both sport and, let’s say, jazz music, or you may care about vampire novels and deep educational, empirical research — there’s a frustration when people who are outside of it dismiss it as something that is not worthy of their attention, perhaps because — as you put it — that high barrier to entry. It’s like, “This is explicitly not for me. Therefore, not only am I not going to participate in it, but I’ll probably downgrade it a little bit in my mental calculus by saying people who do participate in it — there’s something a little off with them.” Even if it’s highbrow.

DUCKWORTH: Like modern art. I think a lot of people are dismissive, or even derogatory, like, “Oh, my 5-year-old could have done that.” It seems absurd to them. I felt like that about modern art. Now, I am the daughter of an artist. And I remember going through museums and thinking, like, “The vase with flowers is art. The portrait of this young woman is art. But, like, what the hell is that blotch of red?” But then, as I got older, I have actually come to appreciate it a little bit. When you’re in the museum, I always do those audio tours. 

DUBNER: Many of which, we should say are terrible, because — no offense to curators and people who work in museums—

DUCKWORTH: Go op-ed on it!

DUBNER: So, here’s the thing, I think what you’re describing here is a really important part of the problem, which is, as my wife, Ellen, likes to say, “There are two kinds of people in the world. There are ‘word’ people and there are ‘picture’ people, and often the twain shall not meet.” There are people who see the world and interpret the world visually, and then those who describe it, or see it, or interpret it with words. Most academics are word people. But there is this whole world of people out there who are very, very, very brilliant, and who understand and interpret and feel things on a visual level, but it can be very hard for them to interpret it on a word level. And so, even most great museums in the world, I feel, do a pretty horrible job of helping the casual viewer understand what they’re looking at and why it’s interesting. But, if you can get lucky and get a curator, or an art historian, or an artist, who can explain it in a way that brings all that significance to bear and lets you see the visual piece of work as an interpretation of, maybe, a social-political moment, then it totally changes it. But I agree: There’s way too little translation between those two worlds. And I think that does a really good job of keeping a lot of people who would otherwise be very interested out of that world. And that’s a shame. 

DUCKWORTH: I have been reading these articles by this psychologist named Paul Silvia. He’s one of my favorite psychologists, and one of his research specialties is interest. Like, what makes things interesting? And he has done this research where he shows people abstract, modern art. And if you know something — like, if you can understand something about its context and what the artist is trying to do — my appreciation goes from two to seven. So, when I listened to these guys talk about whatever — I literally can’t even tell: Was it a tight end? Was it a wide receiver? Was it the draft? I just have the feeling of, “I don’t understand this. I don’t care.”

Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Stephen and Angela discuss the courage that it takes to embrace your preferences in spite of what society says.

DUBNER: She liked this work because it was considered tacky.

*      *      *

Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about why Americans are attracted to lowbrow culture.

DUCKWORTH: So, this class I took at Harvard a bajillion years ago, it was called “Justice,” and I think it may still be taught by Michael Sandel. I remember reading John Stuart Mill, and of course I don’t remember it that well, because it was years ago, but I looked it up. John Stuart Mill, philosopher well known for Utilitarianism

DUBNER: Although, we should say “utilitarianism” means something different now to many people than it did then.

DUCKWORTH: What does it mean now? 

DUBNER: At least with the people I hang out with — which are mostly economists — they talk a lot about “utility.”

DUCKWORTH: I mean, roughly, you could say it’s happiness. Right?

DUBNER: Right. Whereas “utilitarianism,” in the classical definition, is kind of a philosophy of ethics. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Although I think, at the core, it’s the same, right? Because my recollection is that, in the utilitarian account for ethics, what you’re trying to do is maximize “utility,” or wellbeing, for the greatest number of people. And so, that’s kind of at the core of economics. In other words, they’re using more or less the same definition of utility, but they’re not making ethical prescriptions.

DUBNER: It’s a “greater good” utilitarianism versus a self-interested utilitarianism.

DUCKWORTH: Right. But they’re still talking about “utility.” And one of the questions that naturally comes up when you embrace utilitarianism, is, like: What goes into this utility calculation? What if one person has a sense of what gives them pleasure which is lower than another person’s? So, here’s something that John Stuart Mill wrote in his opus, Utilitarianism. It’s a very long passage about higher and lower pleasures, and one can imagine him comparing opera and classical music on one hand to — I don’t know what was the equivalent of Twilight, or watching N.F.L. games. But he has this famous line: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” What Mill goes on to say is that, when we have enough education, we’ll recognize what a higher pleasure is. And it’s only ignorance that would allow anybody to, like, keep pursuing a lower pleasure. So, it sounds to me like Mill is arguing for a hierarchy. He sounds very judge-y, honestly. He just is saying that we all have access to these higher pleasures if we spend enough time educating ourselves.

DUBNER: What you’re describing now leads me to think about a much larger topic, which is what some people have described as a very strong anti-intellectual bent in the U.S. There’s certainly a skepticism of experts. There’s certainly a backlash against environments where there’s a lot of extreme learning going on, like the University of Pennsylvania, where you teach. Kurt Andersen has written a couple really good books on this topic. One is called Evil Geniuses, and the other is called Fantasyland. The second one was about how the U.S. has been an unusually fertile laboratory for the invention of new religions, but also conspiracy theories. And even though that’s not the question that Anya — our letter-writer — was asking about, I do think they’re connected, because in all those art forms there is a lot of depth that those who enjoy that kind of work will say they can learn from. Those who don’t enjoy that kind of work think it’s just totally irrelevant. And I think that, in a way, parallels the anti-intellectual movement. It also makes me think about another way in which the U.S. is just really different. If you look at Americans age 18 and older, what share, would you say, of the populace speaks more than one language?

DUCKWORTH: Do you mean, like, high-school French, or do you mean, like, actually can speak?

DUBNER: This is a survey that looked from 1980 to 2018. In this case, an individual is considered “multilingual” if they A) report speaking a language other than English at home, and B) characterize themselves as speaking English well or very well.

DUCKWORTH: I’m going to go with, uh, 7 percent.

DUBNER: Really good guess. So, in 1980, when this started, only 9 percent of the U.S. was multilingual. It rose, by 2018, to 17 percent, but still, I’m guessing that’s almost entirely about immigration.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s got to be immigration.

DUBNER: So, that makes us very much an outlier, because if you travel a little bit around the rest of the world, you see that many, many, many people speak more than one language. Let me give you another quiz. What share of Americans would you say hold a valid passport?  

DUCKWORTH: Um, maybe 9 percent?

DUBNER: You’re a little over-pessimistic there. 37 percent of people hold a current passport. Now, I don’t mean to be judge-y about it. But the fact is that this country has within it a lot of people who don’t see much value in speaking languages, in consuming art forms, in going other places that are different than the mainstream American culture. And, again, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or good thing, but I am saying it’s unusual for a big, modern, rich country. So, when Anya asks, “How could it be that public intellectuals don’t know the first thing about opera, classical music, and so on?” I would say it doesn’t surprise me at all if you look at the rest of the country.

DUCKWORTH: Interesting. You think this is part of a broader cultural feature of the United States — that we are not that interested in challenging ourselves to look beyond the familiar.

DUBNER: I don’t even want to put the negative tint on it to say, “Not that interested in looking beyond the familiar,” because that connotes a pejorative judgment.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, a little bit, right. Because, you know, in Anya’s letter, it says, “Why, in the United States, are various forms of refined or acquired taste considered a preference, as opposed to a requirement for being in the intellectual elite?” Like, if you don’t want to be pejorative, then what would you say?

DUBNER: Look, I have my personal preferences, like everybody does, and I happen to enjoy engaging with a lot of the things that Anya describes. And I’m not at all embarrassed about it. I’m not super-proud of it. It’s just the way I am.

DUCKWORTH: So, for you, it is a preference, like she says. 

DUBNER: But here’s the thing: I love the idea of preferences, but even more than the idea of preferences, I love the idea of being able to appreciate the heterogeneity of preferences.

DUCKWORTH: You like that other people do not have your preferences, right?  

DUBNER: Yeah. There’s a young British artist that I like a great deal. Her name is Flora Yukhnovich, and she makes these really beautiful and wild paintings that very much speak to a lot of work that was done years and years ago in what’s mostly known as the Rococo style, which was very big right before the French Revolution. And these paintings were opulent, and flowery, and slightly naughty or erotic. And so, her versions of these are a modern commentary on them, but she talks about how, when she was in art school — at a very serious art school in England — that she was petrified that her fellow artists and instructors would learn that she liked this work, because it was considered tacky. And the whole exercise of being in art school was to learn what’s classy. And so, to me, that’s an example going in the other direction, of where it’s a shame when we take our preferences and insist that everyone else embrace them because we think they’re better. That’s where I embrace the notion of heterogeneity.

DUCKWORTH: This account makes the United States seem like a pretty great place to live, where you don’t have this hierarchy of taste. You don’t have highbrow and lowbrow, right? It’s, like, “Live and let live.” 

DUBNER: Unibrow.


DUBNER: Let me ask you one last question that will reveal your true preferences.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. This is a big one.

DUBNER: Let’s say that, for this coming Thursday night, I have a ticket to the opera, a ticket to an N.F.L. game, and a ticket to a new Twilight film. And I’m inviting you — your choice — any of the three. Which are you choosing to attend, and why?

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, as somebody who has been at the first showing on the first day of every film in the series, I will, of course, choose choice C) the new Twilight movie — which, by the way, there are no more to make, because they finished the whole series, just in case you were wondering. But, in this hypothetical example, I’d rather stay home than go to the opera or go to classical music “shows.” I would do almost anything to have a new Twilight film created so that I can go to opening night.

DUBNER: What if I told you though, that I had invented a machine that could bring back dead people to life, and that I had brought back both Puccini—

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know who that is.

DUBNER: Wrote some operas that you might like. Very melodic, Italian, beautiful. And, let’s say, Bronko Nagurski.

DUCKWORTH: Who’s that? 

DUBNER: A great football player. 


DUBNER: And together, they had collaborated to create a new modern version of a Twilight story that was being turned into a football opera. Can I get you in the door at least for that one?

DUCKWORTH: Okay, that is such a good idea. Football, opera, vampires. Sign me up. That sounds good!

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show. Angela wonders if economist, Freakonomics co-author, and proud Twilight fan Steve Levitt, is “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.” Levitt is proudly Team Edward, because, quote, “he is pensive, thoughtful, and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

Later, Angela insists that the 2003 film Love Actually is not lowbrow, as Stephen implies, but rather middlebrow at the very least. The editors of New York Magazine would beg to differ. Some of our listeners will be familiar with the magazine’s notorious “Approval Matrix” — a graph that ranks cultural items on a scale of “lowbrow” to “highbrow” and “despicable” to “brilliant.” The December 2020 publication of the matrix ranked Love Actually at the bottom-left of the spectrum, both “lowbrow” and “despicable,” and just above “zombie minks,” — a phenomenon where Danish minks infected with COVID-19 were buried and subsequently pushed out of the ground by gas released by their own decomposition.

Then, Stephen says that an opera ticket in New York City can cost $150 to $500. Orchestra tickets for the Metropolitan Opera House can actually go for well over $1,000, but all is not lost if you’re an opera fan on a budget. Tickets to performances start at $25 — before taxes and fees, of course — and more than a third of Met tickets are available for under $100.

Also, Angela admits that she often confuses the concept of a “symphony” with that of an “orchestra,” but she concludes that an orchestra is a collection of musicians that plays a symphony. However, not all orchestras play symphonies. They can play chamber music or even musical theater. Additionally, symphony orchestras, which are typically collections of 80 to 100 musicians, are often referred to solely as “symphonies.” So, her confusion about the terminology is more than understandable.

Finally, Stephen says that he thinks that University of Michigan economist Stefan Szymanski is English. Szymanski was raised in England, but he was in fact born in Nigeria.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Can cognitive endurance be taught?

DUCKWORTH: Porn, for me, is reading National Bureau of Economics working papers on cognitive endurance. I can’t resist. It’s titillating.

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help this week from Lyric Bowditch and Jacob Clemente. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jeremy Johnston, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, and Alina Kulman. We had additional research assistance from Anya Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUBNER: What I hear you saying, Angela, is that if you weren’t rereading the Twilight series so often, you would’ve written more books by now.

DUCKWORTH: I think I would get a lot more done if I weren’t re-re-re-rereading Twilight.

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  • Kurt Andersen, author and former host of Studio 360.
  • Pete Carroll, head coach and executive vice president of the N.F.L.’s Seattle Seahawks.
  • Michele Gelfand, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
  • Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and co-author of the Freakonomics books.
  • Silke-Maria Weineck, professor of German studies and comparative literature at the University of Michigan.
  • Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard University.
  • Paul Silvia, professor of psychology at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
  • John Stuart Mill, philosopher, political economist, Member of Parliament in England.
  • Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan.
  • Flora Yukhnovich, painter.