Super Freak

Stephen Dubner ’90SOA, coauthor of the mega-popular Freakonomics books and host of two hit podcasts, wants to tell you a few things you don’t know.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Spring 2018
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Photograph by Audrey Bernstein

It’s a Saturday night in New York, and best-selling author Stephen Dubner ’90SOA is onstage at Joe’s Pub with Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter and Columbia engineering professor Mike Massimino ’84SEAS, discussing a delicate matter: how does an astronaut on a six-hour spacewalk go to the bathroom?

The conversation is a part of Dubner’s podcast Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which is taped in front of a live audience at different venues around the country. For each episode, Dubner chooses a cohost (this week it’s McWhorter) and a professional fact-checker (the New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss ’07CC). Then, in a twist on the usual quiz-show format, Dubner challenges his guests to tell him an interesting fact or idea on a topic of their choosing. At the end of the night, the audience votes for their favorite contestant based on three criteria: whether the information was something they really didn’t know, whether it was worth knowing, and whether it was demonstrably true, as affirmed by the guest fact-checker.

The stakes aren’t terribly high: there’s no prize money, so the winner only takes home bragging rights. Still, the guests are impressive — a mix of academics and professionals, all experts in their fields — and they present a pleasing potpourri of miscellanea. CUNY history professor Jordi Getman Eraso tells the story behind Spain’s wordless national anthem. Carol Willis ’79GSAS, the curator of Manhattan’s Skyscraper Museum, talks about the “skinny skyscraper,” a kind of building unique to New York. Harvard researcher Georgios Pyrgiotakis, who works in nanotechnology, explains how water can be used to fight bacteria. And Massimino, a
veteran of two space-shuttle missions, takes the audience through the intense training regimen required for a spacewalk — including how to pee in a spacesuit (the answer: a sophisticated diaper, known at NASA as a Maximum Absorbency Garment).

Integral to the show’s quick, informal style is Dubner, an affable, inquisitive host, who banters with his guests in a way that makes their often esoteric knowledge seem entirely relatable. It’s clear that this isn’t for show — offstage, too, Dubner is chatty and always eager to learn more, the kind of person you might initially dread as a seatmate on a long plane ride, before inevitably succumbing to his charms.

“I actually came up with the idea for the podcast on a plane,” Dubner says. “I was traveling a lot and would get to chatting with the people sitting next to me. I found that asking a simple question — what’s something I don’t know about what you do? — yielded the best conversations.”

Dubner has built a brand around his ability to ask the right questions. Along with University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, he is the coauthor of the wildly successful Freakonomics books and the host of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, all of which use data and economic theory to explain everyday phenomena. As of 2017, the three Freakonomics books had sold over seven million copies worldwide (or as Dubner says, “more than one copy per every thousand people on earth”), and the podcast gets eight million downloads per month. If Levitt is the mad scientist of the operation, Dubner is his translator, a journalist uniquely gifted at breaking down complex information.

Dubner says that curiosity has been a constant in his life, though his natural proclivity for probing questions wasn’t always encouraged, especially in an unconventional family with an unusual past.

Dubner grew up the youngest of eight children in a small town in rural upstate New York. His parents, born Solomon Dubner and Florence Greenglass, were both raised in pious Jewish households in Brooklyn. As young adults, though, each converted to Roman Catholicism.

Such conversion was basically unheard of in the postwar Jewish diaspora, but the Dubners approached it with rigor. Florence — who was a first cousin of executed spy Ethel Rosenberg — changed her name to Veronica; Sol morphed into Paul; and all eight Dubner children were named after saints. The family never missed Mass at their local church, and they kept a shrine with a wooden crucifix on top of the bookshelf. But their Christian piety also meant fully relinquishing their Jewish past; Dubner’s maternal grandmother visited occasionally, but his father’s parents had disowned their son when he converted, even sitting shiva for him.

“As the youngest of eight children, I naturally knew the least about my family’s past,” Dubner says.

His father died when Dubner was a teenager, and once his brothers and sisters had left for college, he grew especially close with his mother. He excelled at math and science and also worked on his high-school newspaper, but he was more focused on writing music for his rock band. When his mother suggested selling their old farmhouse and moving to North Carolina, Dubner was happy to follow, and he earned his undergraduate degree at Appalachian State University.

After college, Dubner toured briefly with a band called the Right Profile — “a sort of mash-up of blues and Rolling Stones–style rock and punk — this was the early eighties, after all.” The band was moderately successful and even wound up getting a record deal with Arista. But Dubner realized the lifestyle wasn’t for him; he decided to quit music and go to graduate school. “I loved music, but I didn’t like touring or making records,” he says. “Writing always came naturally to me. So I figured I should take the thing that I was good at and get better.”

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