Economics—minus the math


“Wait a minute, didn’t you get a 2 on the calculus AP exam?” asked Freakonomics author Steven Levitt’s high-school math teacher at the U of C economics professor’s 20-year high-school reunion. In a Monday night talk at the Max Palevsky dorms, Levitt recounted several stories about his trouble grasping math concepts. His humor, along with tales of questions that he and other “rogue economists” hope to answer, captivated the largely undergraduate audience—at least those who managed to squeeze their way into the small auditorium to see the economist who studies, in his own words, “things that other economists don’t.”

Stories about Levitt’s norm-breaking colleagues took up much of the lecture. He cited John List, a Chicago colleague who “invalidated the life’s work” of economists who, using a lab experiment called the “dictator game,” believed they were finding evidence of human altruism. In the game, a person is given a sum of money and dictates whether or not to give part of the money to a stranger. The researchers found that most subjects would split the money with the stranger, but List discovered that, because it was played in a laboratory setting, the game didn't actually prove that people are altruistic; rather it demonstrated that they wanted to seem altruistic to the person in the white lab coat. “Just by thinking about the question,” Levitt said, List showed that economists who thought they were finding altruism “missed the boat.”

Levitt took more than 45 minutes of audience questions, which ranged from “What are you working on now?” to “What is the one piece of advice you have for somebody just starting in economics?” To the former, Levitt played close to his chest but gave a hint: are some doctors better than others, and what makes them better? To the latter, he again invoked his antimathematical past, urging students to demand introductory classes in which they are first taught the basics of economics to supplement the College’s math-heavy economics curriculum.

—Ruthie Kott

Photos: Students peer through the dorm screen to get a glimpse (top); Freakonomics author Steve Levitt (Photo by Dan Dry).

October 11, 2006