Friday, May 06, 2005

Books and Freakonomics

On Thursday morning, I happened to catch Messrs. Levitt and Dubner on the Today Show discussing Freakonomics. I did a double take at the discussion of this excerpt about what contributes to high test scores for children (p. 172 in the book):

Matters: The child has many books in his home.
Doesn't: The child's parents read to him every day.

So I interrupted the world's most enjoyable 15 minute walk to work with a stop at the new and improved campus bookstore (thank you Barnes and Noble!) to pick up my copy. I read the relevant chapter over some chai.

On the show, they didn't really get to explain why having the books matters while reading them doesn't, which might lead one to believe that spending money on a home library that wasn't used would be a good idea. In the book, the authors' provide a theory--that having books in the home is an indicator for parents who are themselves smart and transmit this genetically or who value education (and instill this in many ways that are more critical than reading the actual books). They do explain the difference between causality and correlation, in this and many other instances.

But what is a parent to do in light of this? What exactly is prescriptive about the finding? The book has a Calvinist thread running through it. How do I know whether buying the book would be useful--maybe I'm the type of person who should have books in his home, because I am smart or I value education--but how do I know? I'll buy the books, just in case, to show that I am predetermined to have high-scoring kids ...

As with linear regression on the Daily Show earlier, the TV roadshow isn't allowing some of the broad points of econometrics to come through. Add the difference between causality and correlation to the things we economists need to be able to explain in just a couple of quick sentences, for a TV audience. I'll take your suggestions in the comments section.

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1 comment:

spencerengland said...

I wonder if their is a bias in the measurement of reading to a child.

A child lives at home for about 18 years. So during that time you probably read to it from the age of 1 to 7. After the child is over 7 it reads to itself.

Thus, the period you read to a child is only about one-third of the time it is at home.

So if you look at a home that has 2 teenagers but a lot of books you find that the parents never read to the child.

I have not seen the study, but would this bias the results.