This Idea Must Die

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(photo: Fondo Antiguo de la Universidad de Sevilla)

(photo: Fondo Antiguo de la Universidad de Sevilla)

Season 5, Episode 5

In this week’s episode of Freakonomics Radio, we first explore whether some of the scientific ideas we cling to should be killed off; and then Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt answer some listener questions.

The gist: Every year, asks its salon of big thinkers to answer one big question. In 2014, the question bordered on heresy: what scientific idea is ready for retirement? Experts weigh in. And then Dubner and Levitt talk about fixing the post office, putting cameras in the classroom, and wearing hats.

To find out more, check out the podcasts from which this hour was drawn: “This Idea Must Die” and “Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions.”

You can subscribe to the Freakonomics Radio podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, or get the RSS feed.

Gerard Plourde

I think that the current credit report criteria must die. Your credit report should be based on your past history of payments...END OF STORY. Current credit practices are based on lending money to CHILDREN. If you lend money to a responsible ADULT then that adult, acting in his/her own self interest will pay the money back on time and receive an EXCELLENT credit rating as a responsible borrower. Current credit reports penalize you for closing accounts that you don't need (responsible adult) and they also fine you for requesting credit that you DO need (responsible adult). Finally they fine you for the TYPE of credit you have, which encourages people who DON'T need credit to get it anyway just so they can get a good credit report (INSANELY STUPID CHILD).

Credit scores should be based on your ability to pay (income/assets) versus your payment history (record of payments). All the rest is just the people that HAVE money trying to keep the people that DON'T have money POOR.


Sara Lambert

I just listened to your program for the first time. I agree with Alan Alda that old ideas ought to be reimagined and understood in context, not 'retired." But the comment that caused me to write this comment was Steven Levitt's outageous, ridiculous and obscene statement that law enforcement officials oppose legalization of marijuana because it keeps them in business. Really!! I hadn't notice that they were in danger of losing their jobs! I am a chemical dependency therapist and Mr Levitt obviously knows very little about the disease of addiction and the harm and chaos it causes individual, families and society. If anyone is kept in business by the legalization of addictive substances it is the pharmaceutical companies. Unfortunately, my job is quite secure, though living on the salary is a challenge.


You are conflating two ideas: marijuana legalization, and addiction and harm. In terms of addiction, MJ and alcohol are comparable - in fact, Marijuana is lowest of the addictive capability of five major vices.

Thus, the preservation of marijuana prohibition could well be motivated by the massive industry that has grown up around criminalization.

Having suggested this, though, I do recognize the really dangerous logic of saying "oh, wants to keep going because that's how they make their money." I believe that Doctors really do want to cure us, counting on our longer lives for more medical incidents. I believe Big Pharma really does cure us (look at Hepatitis C treatments stopping a lifetime of maintenance drugs) with the knowledge that we'll then be open to having other symptoms treated, or living longer and getting more exotic diseases. Global warming scientists really are worried about the environment and there are enough environmental issues to keep us occupied that they don't need to artificially support global warming in the hopes of profiting from research funding. That is, evidence of profiting is not de facto evidence of bias in suppressing a cure or change in policy.



I have to wonder, if you think market should determine the value of life, if that means you think the lives of wealthy people (more power in the market) have more value than the lives of the poor (little to no buying power). 5% of your income would go much further than 5% of a retiree's income, or a working class parent. I think actually the market is the WORST way to determine the value of life, because the market has no compassion, no holistic interpretation of cultural values, only monetary value. I agree we make some poor choices in care, but making health care decisions based on your ability to pay in a country with a shrinking middle class seems like the coldest idea I've heard in a while. Maybe it would work (sounds contradictory, but hear me out) if medicine were socialized- then all medicine holds equal value to all citizens, and we are forced into efficiency, while maintaining a base level of care for everyone.


Average Random Joe

In a market system, those that value the care the most would pay it. 5% may be more to a retireree, but that is their choice to make AND it isn't a % of income. Trades are value for value. I value that so I will give you something you value, currency intermediates that. You don't have currency, you haven't provided as much value. That is

Compassion can make some people do really stupid things and prevent really smart things that would make everyone better off because feelings. If I have learned anything from freakonomics, emotional bias is strong and sneaky. It causes otherwise rational people to make stupid choices that they think are rational.

Think about water during a hurricane. If you ration it, people are going to take the ration. Say someone comes in and needs more water because that have a family member that is sick and in danger of dehydration. But you determined that the value is equal to everyone. And if you evaluate this as an exception, you just created a backdoor for abuse. So you need to block that abuse with bureaucracy to validate special needs claims (which becomes another backdoor for corruption or don't piss the person off or catch her or him on a bad day) which increases overhead decreasing the water provided for everyone. Hmm does this sound familiar of a system, like say the health care system? If that person was really valuing that water, they would pay more which is their way of giving up other things that they need less while other would take less because is cost more allowing the most water to be provided by the system and that it is delivered to the greatest need.

The market doesn't need compassion to get the better job done, it is more holistic than any other approach because it IS the outward expression of cultural values and only uses monetary value to signal those things to the participants.

Your problem is income disparity which is unrelated to the topic of health care or valuing life. Those wealthy were created in a part through state intervention through barriers to entry and rent seeking, along with other methods to artificially limit the market. Look at ACA, my coverage has decreased because the government said it can't be too high (I am not wealthy or at a small firm, I am lower level at a 3k+ employee company.) so I got less coverage from my employer because THEY said so. And my premiums have gone up every year and the costs to the company even with those limitations have gone up and are a major compensation item on the income statement now. Nothing has infinite worth, to claim that is to ignore scarcity.


Jennifer Sant'Anna

"What scientific idea is ready for retirement?" Can I include a "soft" science?

Many decisions made in the US and across the globe are made because either "it is good for the economy" or "we can't do that because it will 'harm the economy.'" "Harm the Economy" is an excuse should be retired.

What is this "economy" and who does it benefit and for how long?

This excuse seldom considers a broad economic picture or anything longer term than a quarter or two.

A few examples (off the top of my head, without good supporting data, but I think you'll get the picture):

In 1984, I worked in a lab studying bacteria resistance to antibiotics. Let me repeat that, IN 1984. Ever since, I've been listening to reports of how giving antibiotics to livestock is increasing resistance and will eventually create a crisis, but stopping would harm the livestock business. Today I read a report that China now has superbugs in their livestock, that has spread to HUMAN hospital patients, resistant to ALL antibiotics.

The GOP's current resistance to climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions are all about how they will harm the economy.

Some argue that plastic bag bans will "harm the economy."

Coal mining.

Really? Coal mining. We can do better by the people whose job it is to be coal miners. Why aren't the coal mining states fighting tooth and nail to be the locations of renewable energy tech manufacturing?

Other ideas, policies, etc. that will "harm the economy" include Obamacare, toxic chemical regulation, GMO labeling, etc.

It is like watching a slow-moving freight train run us over, all while some are screaming "get out the way, get out of the way!" and others are insisting that the freight train matters most.

From my perspective, not leading on climate change will lead to far greater harm to our economy due to the US losing is leadership role in technology (as a small percentage of Americans (GOP lawmakers) hang on to their support of the fossil fuel industry) and due to all of the impacts of climate change to infrastructure, health, agriculture and more.

My desire is to see Media no longer accept "harm the economy" as an excuse without always asking the broader questions of "who and for how long" does that harm effect.



Great topic and interviews. Horrible, horrible music playing in the background... pretty much a nightmarish scenario where the soundtrack to Diners Drive-ins and Dives and elevator muzak's greatest hits got together and created a monstrosity that would haunt your dreams forever.

Ok, ok, it wasn't that bad. But it was bad enough to overshadow some of the thought provoking content. Sometimes silence is golden...