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 Anthony Washington

Dubner applied to Columbia’s MFA program in fiction, initially thinking he wanted to write novels (“top-tier education wasn’t really a part of my early life, so I was just knocked over and thrilled when I got in,” he says). For his thesis, he started work on a novel based on his family’s unusual religious path. But as he started doing research, his journalistic instincts kicked in.

“I kept wanting more facts, more information,” Dubner says. “So I started interviewing my mom, and my dad’s estranged family. And I realized that I was good at getting stories out of people.”

Dubner completed his MFA but abandoned his novel, and eventually got a job writing for the New York Times Magazine. In 1996, he published a feature on his family and his subsequent decision to return to Judaism. Two years later, he turned the article into his first book, a memoir called Turbulent Souls. Then he got an assignment that would change the course of his career: a profile of Steven Levitt, a young economist who had recently made waves for a paper linking legalized abortion and decreased crime rates.

“I went to Chicago intending to meet with him for three hours,” Dubner says. “I ended up staying three days.”

Dubner found that Levitt was looking at economics in an entirely new way, using his research to ask questions about everyday life. How does a baby name affect that child’s future career? Do real-estate agents have their clients’ best interests at heart? Is sumo wrestling fixed?

“I remember calling my wife from the hotel room and telling her, ‘I have no idea if anyone’s going to be interested in these things — in sumo wrestling and baby names,’” Dubner says. “But I didn’t care. Every time I asked a question that I thought I knew the answer to, Levitt would totally upend the way I thought about it.”

Photographs by Lusy Sutton (left) and Anthony Washington (right)

As it turned out, people did care. The article got an overwhelming reader response, and Dubner’s literary agent suggested that he and Levitt collaborate on a book.

“I was actually hesitant at first,” Dubner says. “This is not how book deals usually emerge — I was the journalist, and he was the subject. But we worked well together. Levitt has this incredible way of looking at the world, and I was able to frame that in a way that people could really grasp.”

The original Freakonomics book was published in 2005, debuting at number two on the New York Times bestseller list. But while plenty of books have a stint as a bestseller, momentum for Freakonomics built exponentially. By 2009, when Dubner and Levitt published the sequel, SuperFreakonomics, sales of the first volume were over four million. Dubner explains the success in a way that feels plucked from the pages of the book.

“It’s called the blockbuster effect,” he says. “It’s impossible to go from small to big. But to go from big to really big is not actually that hard with something like a book, which thrives on word of mouth.”

In other words, the book went viral. Dubner’s publisher, William Morrow, was one of the first to tap into the blogosphere, circulating galleys to bloggers and other people who might be inclined to spread the word on social media — people who would today be called “influencers.”

“There's something about the live format that just encourages good conversation.”

Dubner and Levitt picked up on that digital success and launched a website. Then, in 2010, long before podcasts had become mainstream, they started Freakonomics Radio. For the last eight years, it has consistently ranked as one of iTunes’s most downloaded podcasts.

“I’ve always liked radio. Growing up in a small town in upstate New York, it felt like a connection to the broader world,” Dubner says. “I’m sure Levitt won’t mind me saying that the podcast is really my project; he does it as a favor to me. But I do think that it’s given us room to tackle so many more things than we’d be able to do in books, which can be very slow.”

Over the course of 314 episodes, the podcast has examined everything from the economics of sleep (people who sleep better make more money), the question of tipping in restaurants (what happens when you eliminate tipping and raise menu prices?), and whether boycotts actually work. They’ve had an economist edit the online-dating profile of a hapless twentysomething and tried to determine the most efficient way to exercise. Some topics expand on concepts introduced in the book (“people are always very interested in baby names,” says Dubner), but most are new, and the podcast format allows them to tackle more timely issues, like what Uber can teach us about the gender pay gap.

Dubner says that he’s been pleasantly surprised by the direct impact that some episodes have on people. After an early episode called “The Upside of Quitting,” for example, Dubner started hearing from listeners who had finally quit a bad job or left a toxic relationship and credited the show for giving them the final push. A story about Al Roth ’71SEAS, a Stanford economist and Nobel laureate who is using an economic principle called market design to help people who need a kidney to match with a donor, has inspired several organ donations.

“I had people coming up to me for years telling me that they got a kidney because of that show,” Dubner says. “I’m a pretty analytical guy, but the mushy side of me was very moved by that.”

While each episode of Freakonmics is scripted, with a hefty dose of reporting involved, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know is far more casual, which Dubner welcomes. “I think there’s something about the live format that just encourages good conversation,” he says. “People are spontaneous. When it works well — as it did in the episode with Mike Massimino — people forget that we’re recording a podcast. It’s like a great dinner party, without the dinner.” Still, he hopes that listeners leave the episodes having learned something and curious to learn more.

And if Dubner were a guest on his own show and had to tell you something you didn’t know about being one of the world’s most successful authors, it would likely be the same thing he would say about being a podcast host or a magazine journalist.

“I’ve been surprised to find that whether I’m writing an article or a book or hosting a podcast, for me the work is actually very much the same,” he says. “You find interesting people to talk to. You don’t ask any yes-or-no questions. And you don’t try to pretend that you’re smarter than you are or that you know more than you do. It’s that simple.”

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