'Freaknomics' author says the most upsetting problem he's ever researched was cancer

Stephen Dubner, co-author of the best-selling “Freakonomics” series of books, has helped analyse hundreds of problems between four books (and an upcoming fifth, on golf), a blog and his podcast radio show.

While he’s often depicted as the sidekick to his coauthor, the acclaimed economist Steven Levitt, his role actually varies from project to project.

Yes, he’s the writer and communicator. But often he’s knee deep in setting up experiments himself.

For instance, when the team researched if car seats for older kids actually make kids safer back in 2005, that was a “real tag-team effort,” Dubner recalls. Levitt analysed the data, but Dubner set up the experiment.

He says that this Freaknomics journey has changed his outlook in a several ways.

The work makes him vacillate between being more cynical and more hopeful. “I’m OK with that. I’m not hoping to come down on one side or the other,” he told Business Insider.

He’s more cynical because “so many of the ideas and platitudes and conventional wisdoms you run into are really not legitimate,” he says. “If you just poke at them a little bit and get a little bit of data, you see they are not so irrefutable.”

Out of all the analysis and experiments he’s done, there’s one that was the “most upsetting.” When the team looked into cancer research and discovered “how not far we’ve come,” he says.

“It is true that there are some cancers and some treatments that are better than they were 40 or 50 years ago, but relative to the severity of the problem, and relative to the amount of money and mind share that we’ve devoted to it, the level of success is just much, much smaller than I think everyone would wish,” he says. (By the way, Levitt’s sister passed away in 2012 from cancer. She was 50.)

Then again, he also feels more optimistic at times because “there’s just an army of smart, well-intentioned people out there, including some in politics and some in business, who are coming up with new ways for all of us to be better at problem solving.”

In fact, Freakonomics Radio these days has become more devoted to discussing solutions to complex problems, rather than just ripping down conventional wisdom.

All of this has changed the way he generally thinks about humanity, too.

He understands that people are just being “human” and making decisions in response to their incentives.

“I’ve learned not to blame people,” he says.

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