October 17, 2006

Levitt shares his academic weaknesses

Students spilled out of a jam-packed Max Palevsky East Commons last Monday night to hear U of C economics professor Steven Levitt’s lecture: “Beyond Freakonomics.”

Levitt’s book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, co-written with New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, made the case that economic theory does not have to be a dismal science.

Levitt divulged his AP Calculus exam score of 2 to the full crowd to emphasize the importance of intuition in economics. He said he tested into a basic math class at Harvard University, wryly noting, “The person here with Plato’s Republic is commiserating with me.”

He completed his economics Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he said the math again overwhelmed him.

“I was getting check minuses on the problem sets, but on the exams, I didn’t do so badly,” Levitt said. “I had the intuition, not the math.”

Providing advice to economics students, Levitt reiterated the power of intuition. “You should always be trying to relate the math back to the intuition,” he said, adding that students should own two textbooks—the course-assigned book and one that focused on basic concepts without the higher math.

The crux of Levitt’s speech concerned the notion that a single person can have a significant impact. He mentioned Emily Oster—whom he called one of the best economists under the age of 30—and U of C economist John List—whose research on charitable donors undermined existing theories of altruism.

Levitt said one of the keys to success is pursuing a field that one finds interesting, whether or not others recognize its value.

“What you have to do is find a set of questions people were interested in, but that real economists refuse to put their names next to,” said Levitt.