What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common? (Ep. 174)

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This week’s episode is called “What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?” (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.)

The gist? It isn’t easy to separate the guilty from the innocent — but a clever bit of game theory can help. The goal, as Steve Levitt puts it, is “to get the bad guys to come forward and tell you who they are.” It’s a trick that Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their new book Think Like a Freak, call “teaching your garden to weed itself.”

In the episode you’ll hear what David Lee Roth and King Solomon have in common. Among the possibilities:

  1. They were both Jewish.
  2. They both got a lot of girls.
  3. They both wrote the lyrics to a number-one pop song.
  4. They both dabbled in game theory.

You’ll also hear the economist Peter Leeson — whose latest book is Anarchy Unbound — describe how medieval ordeals worked, and why it is that the majority of criminal suspects who were forced to grab a hot bar of iron were somehow not burned.

And Levitt and Dubner talk about a trap that they laid back when SuperFreakonomics was published. Here’s part of their exchange:

DUBNER: [Levitt, do] you remember that story we wrote in SuperFreakonomics about why terrorists should buy life insurance?

LEVITT: Yeah, that was one of my favorite things of all time.

DUBNER: But we didn’t tell the whole story, did we?

LEVITT: No we didn’t, we lied, and that was what was so fun about it.

Calm down! They lied in the service of a greater good – to catch terrorists. You’ll hear what they did. Now, admittedly, catching terrorists and sorting the innocent from the guilty is probably not something you have to do regularly — so the last story in this episode may be most relevant to you. It’s about why Nigerian e-mail scammers prominently say they are from Nigeria when most sensible people know the ruse. I can promise: when this episode is over, you’ll never look at spam e-mail, or at David Lee Roth, the same way ever again.


So, did anyone buy insurance from their bank?


Would they sign an NDA to prohibit the disclosure of any successes when they setup this little scheme?


Did the terrorist experiment yeild any results? Did any government agencies use the data to catch terrorists?


I knew it!! I love your podcasts and books. Now I am interested in how many terrorists were caught. And, who were the ones to agree and disagree with you theory in the USA?


In the last part of the podcast it was mentioned that scammers purposely say they are from nigeria to weed out individuals who would do due diligence (thus grouping the "easy/susceptible" subjects)

Using "uber freakanomics logic" therefore I would conclude the bank insurance "info ruse" would therefore only be useful to group together individuals (of lower rank) who should be further investigated...

I'd guess , anyone higher up the terrorist food chain wouldn't buy insurance from a bank because they would be strategist not operational "sacrificial" pawns

BTW I would not expect the freakanomics guys to reveal exact numbers because if they did they would be revealing how successful the operation was and tradecraft (methods developed by intelligence operatives to conduct their operations) secrets which might allow "terrorists" to develop future countermeasures


The Nigerian e-mail spammers story is the unconvincing in the book that is very good. I have an alternative theory to explain why scammers would allude to being from Nigeria but that's for a different place.


Wait... huh? This whole terrorism experiment really confuses me and certainly wasn't helped by a complete lack of data on the show. Some banks legitimately sell life insurance to legitimate customers. I have life insurance (along with homeowner's and auto) through my federal credit union. Am I on a terrorism watchlist now?

How does the correlation of performing this uncommon action that happened to be mentioned by them in association with terrorists, lead to the causation that people performing this action are likely terrorists?

Let me try to extrapolate this into another example. The restaurant chain Burger King offers fish sandwiches. I don't actually know the figures, but let's assume that - as a restaurant named for the burger - the fish sandwich is nowhere near the most popular item on the menu. So the vast majority of rational, legally-minded people go to Burger King for something other than fish. If someone were to strongly suggest to terrorists that it were in their best interests to order Burger King fish sandwiches, that would automatically conclude that "most people who order the fish sandwich at Burger King are terrorists... and REALLY dumb ones at that."

I'm certainly in favor of this type of experiment, but I'm not sure that it makes any real sense.



My wife and I listened to your podcast this morning and thoroughly enjoyed it, but like a Saturday mornging serial we were left with a teasingly unresloved ending. Well... how many dumb terrorists did you find?

Matt Rosen

Two questions:

1) Did it work?
2) Why divulge it now?


My guess is that this must be a second stage in the development of their trap. Suppose they have identified a subset of people and now they need to have the real terrorists weed themselves out. Now that the plan has been described, they can monitor which customers cancel their insurance and/or exhibit other suspicious behavior.

Paul Ciske

The part about Van Halen and the M&Ms made me think about students in my class who will test me to see if I am actually reading their assignments, Sometimes a question will be answered Ï don't know." or in the middle of a paragraph a student might add "Happy Birthday Easter Bunny" or even "I don't think that you are reading this so blah blah blah.". If they think that a teacher is only grading by completeness and not correctness, it really changes their focus on the assignments, and why not. If thy can get a better grade with 6 crummy answers than 3 well thought out answers, then they probably should complete it. As someone who reads what the students give me, it is fun to find the occasional student who tests it out. When the other students find out that they have been caught, it improves everyone's work.

caleb b

I had a very prominent prof who absolutely did not read any of our papers. It wouldn't have bothered me if he didn't make us write a paper a week. So i just turned in the same, completely nonsensical paper every week from weeks 5-12....I got an A on all of them and he recommended me to his special investment class based on my performance.

I miss college.


I have a massive issue with the "Trial by ordeal". We are to believe that the okay people believe that god will either let their hand burn or keep them safe based on innocence, that's fine. But what of the priests, why would they even bother rigging the test...are we to believe that the lay person is so much more religious than the priests?...Really? And even if we do buy the dumb public, atheist priests, situation, are we then to believe that the people wouldn't quickly figure the ruse out?


Is nobody else bothered by the lack of journalistic ethics involved in this trick on the terrorists? It seems to me like the flip side of spies posing as journalists. And how are we to believe anything written by these or other economists, knowing that they sometimes lie in their published work? And if you believe, as Steven (I think) professed to, that the dangers of terrorism are much overstated in our society, why not concoct some research in an attempt to back that up, rather than engaging in a study of dubious ethics in an effort to trip up a few of the admittedly stupider among those terrorists?


Actually, yes, I was bothered by that revelation. I'm not thrilled that I purchased a book to unwittingly further their experiment. I came to this comment section to see if there was anyone else that was similarly annoyed. While their goal of catching dumb terrorists seems to be a noble one, I didn't set out to buy a book that had a useless chapter in it. I can't speak to whatever ethics are involved in this, but I can say this: I am going to sleep on it, but I'm considering withdrawing my pledge to support the show. I've enjoyed the fruit of their research and results, but I'm not interested in paying to become the subject of their research and results and then to be lied to on top of that. However, it is late, and I may be overreacting, and I'm willing to listen to rational counterarguments.

James Cropcho

Fantastic job, Levitt, Dubner and the rest: this is my favorite Freakonomics podcast to date. -James Cropcho

Kevan Shaw

Brown M&M s had nothing to do with the technical aspects of the Van Hallen shows. The many technical breaches of the rider had to be dealt with by us road crew hours before the band arrived or even the M&Ms separated. This was an example of the many ways tour managers and accountants found to create breeches of the catering requirements. This was done as the catering cost was deducted from the band's share of the gate receipts so the tour accountant could claim the catering was not as contracted and therefore should not be deducted. As this was a few thousand dollars each night it was a sound economic strategy! There were many other ways to get promoters to breech the catering requirements such as requiring obscure and locally unobtainable brands of beer,soft drinks, biscuits or whatever. Smart promoters had touring reps with the bands to buy and carry these "unobtainable " products, devious tour managers had us road crew trying to find and consume or hide the stashes the reps brought with them!


Martin McLean

Always an interesting podcast on Freakonomics.

The King Solomon game with the baby reminded me (LOL) of one of the great TV shows of all time:

"Sweet justice! Newman, you are wise ... well, tell it to the judge, honey."

To wit:


So the biggest question from this story is......how many terrorists did you catch? C'mon, give us the ending! Don't tease us.


Your "why terrorists should buy life insurance" segment was interesting, but I think you might have overlooked a significant factor. Well, it's a factor that applies to me, and so it feels significant. :)

I'm a brown guy. I'm An Iraqi-born Canadian, and while I don't think I'm anyone's idea of a terrorist, I do find myself frequently subject to extra screening at airports, or anywhere else where security is a concern. It's a hassle, and a constant reminder that 'white' North Americans consider me something 'other'.

I've chosen to address this by becoming as transparent as possible. I'm easy to find, both online and in real life, and have a social media profile that's super easy to browse. I'm certainly not the target customer for any sort of encryption. I live under the assumption that government eyes will occasionally look my way, and since I have nothing to hide, I want them to be able to see everything when they do.

I have even gone so far as to sign up for the province of Ontario's enhanced driver's license which, for fee, gives you an extra security snoop and can be used at US road borders instead of a passport.

I have absolutely no actual need for this enhanced license. I rarely drive to the states, and I would take my passport anyway when I did. The only reason I have this thing is to signal to government agencies that I have nothing to hide, in the hope that I have to undergo a few fewer enhanced screenings at airports.

I know that my attitude (if not my specific actions) are shared by many other law-abiding brown people, who want to distance themselves from the crazies. So, while I haven't actually done this, I can certainly imagine reading the subtitle of your book and picking up a little life insurance for the same reason. Anything to show the world that I'm a regular guy, living a regular life.

Of course, you're right to observe that a terrorist might do exactly the same thing - but your on-air description overlooks the fact that such a screening would also scoop up the dozens? hundreds? of other folks who are just trying to get by.