Think Like A Freak

Do you know what the three hardest words in the English language are? To clarify, I mean the three hardest words to say consecutively. Don’t think too hard about it, you know all three. In fact, I’ve already used them.

Scanning back through the previous paragraph, you know now that the three hardest words aren’t “I love you.” Hard as those might be for some to say, the truly hardest three are an admission of weakness, and that’s what makes them difficult. Final guesses?

If you said “I don’t know,” then you’d be correct. Those are the three hardest words in the English language according to the opening chapter in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubnar’s Think Like A Freak, their follow-up to Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics.

By learning to “think like a freak,” you’ll be able to solve problems much like the authors did in their previous books. But in order to do this, you’ll need to recognize how hard but important it is to say “I don’t know.” Refusing to say this comes across as dogmatic. In Levitt and Dubnar’s usage, being dogmatic is having “an unshakable belief” that you “know something to be true” even when you don’t (25). As they see it, this “lethal combination – cocky – plus wrong” is particularly disastrous when it comes to making sound predictions about the future. Not surprisingly, this leads to a brief example using Harold Camping (30). This is followed by a discussion of what your moral compass’ functions are in problem solving (31).

In their estimation, the downside of using your moral compass for problem-solving is that it “can convince you that all the answers are obvious (even when they’re not); that there is a bright line between right and wrong (when often there isn’t); and, worst, that you are certain you already know everything you need to know about a subject so you stop trying to learn more” (31-32). In that frame of mind, you certainly can’t admit you don’t know something.

We see this play out in online discussions. Many of us would rather fake cultural literacy than admit we haven’t read an “important” article. If we haven’t actually read the article in question, then we should realize we can’t be dogmatic about the “right way” to look at it. This should lead us to being a bit more tentative in our analysis, which in turn might lead to a cordial online discussion (imagine that!). As Levitt and Dubnar point out, if we’re willing to admit we don’t know, we’re now in a position to actually learn from the situation. By knowing and admitting our limitations in knowledge, we’ve taken the first step toward “thinking like a freak.” As for the rest, you’ll have to actually read the book.

Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubnar, Think Like A Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. New York: William Morrow, 2014. 288 pp. Hardcover, $28.99.