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.

John Steward

BTW, the priests didn't necessarily have to "read" the behavior of the defendants in order to discern the guilty from the innocent. Let's not forget that hearing confession is part of their role and is required. Parishioners commit a mortal sin by taking communion while unrepentant. Perhaps the an obvious source of information was the confessions of the guilty and/or their helpers or family.


But that gets us further into the morass of trying to figure motivations. As for instance, if the supposed thief really believed in the religion, why would he steal - a sin - in the first place? And if he didn't hesitate to commit the sin of theft, why would he be bothered by not admitting to it in confession?

Then of course there's the question of why a priest who really believed in the religion would try to 'fix' an ordeal, since by his belief God should spare the innocent. Indeed, wouldn't that fixing be a sin in itself, as usurping the power of God? So we have to conclude that many priests were not true believers.


5. They were both runnin' with The Devil?
6. Their simple lives weren't actually all that simple?


I've been catching up on podcasts and listened to this one yesterday. I generally greatly enjoy the Freakonomics podcasts, but I had trouble with nearly all the segments/stories in this one. I got to the end and said, "huh?"

I'll keep this brief by only commenting on one of the problems I had ... the brown M&M's.

Let me see if I got this right ...

David Lee Roth takes great pride in inserting a clause in their contract that he claims will indicate whether the details of the contract (for safety reasons) were, in fact, carefully read.


1. Why not put the clause in the part of the contract in which you are interested? For example, the third light in the second row from the audience is to have a polka-dot gel installed. It seems to me that the catering part will simply be handed off to some minion to fulfill and whether the catering part is executed to the letter would have nothing to do with the quality of the construction of the set.

2. Who is the lazier here, the person who signs the contract and then does not read it or follow it to the letter or the band who does not check the construction carefully, but instead relies on brown M&M "markers" to determine if they should check more carefully?

3. Do we have any data on whether this "garden weeds itself successfully?" Or does it just make an entertaining story?

Come on, guys, you can do better than this one.



I really enjoyed the podcast, but it reminded me of one from the Canadian skeptical podcast 'The Reality Check'. In episode 219 Pat Roach did an excellent review of the whole Brown M&M's rider. The interesting thing is that he didn't just Wikipedia the topic, he read the rider. Now THAT'S a skeptical approach. Turns out, there's more to it than Snopes and Wikipedia report.
Here's a link to the episode, I recommend it.