Apr 29th 2005

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors, the legendary memory expert Gordon Bower, told a story of a paper he once wrote. He had conducted a study of word memory, but found that the results were muddled by an incidental social aspect of the experiment. The social effect intrigued him so that he wrote up the results and submitted them to a journal of social psychology, outside of his field. The editor of the journal responded, "Well Gordon, nice work. You've successfully replicated one of the best-known results in all of social psychology."

Why am I telling you this? Well, it came to mind as I was reading the baby-naming chapter of renowned economist Steven Levitt's new book Freakonomics, recently excerpted in Slate. Levitt (with journalist Stephen Dubner) set out to use "the best analytical tools that economics can offer" to uncover the "hidden side of everything," promising to reveal surprising and counterintuitive aspects of the world around us. His manifesto, from the introduction:

It is well and good to opine or theorize about a subject, as humankind is wont to do, but when moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of the data, the result is often a new, surprising insight.
Analytical rigor, astonishing revelations. Does he deliver?

I first started to worry when Levitt stated as fact the well-worn urban legends about babies named OrangeJello, LemonJello, and Shithead. A 10-second Google search would have been sufficient to throw those into question, didn't he bother? As a matter of fact, he did. In the endnotes, he cheerfully admits that his source for Shithead "might have been misinformed, of course, or even outright lying." And as for the 'Jellos:

Although these names have the whiff of urgan legend about them -- they are, in fact, discussed on a variety of websites that dispel (or pass along) urban legends -- the authors learned of the existence of OrangeJello and LemonJello from Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, who swears he met the twin boys in a grocery store.
Oh, you heard it from a guy who swears he saw them once in a grocery store! Phew, thank goodness for "the best analytical tools that economics can offer."

Hereon, we proceed with caution.

In discussing the origins of name trends, Levitt's primary thesis is that fashions which originate with the upper classes gradually trickle down the economic ladder. This, naturally, is no revelation -- in fashion-based industries like apparel, it's an explicit, institutionalized process. (After all, we call the elite "trendsetters" because they set the trends.) The revelation is meant to come in the form of predictive power. Levitt uses data about California parents' economic status and name choices to propose a list of names that, "unlikely as it seems," are candidates to become "mainstream names" ten years from now. Names like Emma, Isabel, and Grace. But wait a second, aren't those already mainstream names?

Here's a graph of the popularity of Levitt's suggested future girl's names, using the data available at the time he wrote the book:

In fact, of his 24 predictions for "unlikely" names that could possibly hit the mainstream in a decade, 7 were already top-100 names, including 2 of the top 15 (Emma and Grace). Looking boldly out into the future, he predicted the present. Oops. So much for revelations.

What was the economics-based methodology for those questionable choices? Apparently, the author looked at a list of of names favored by rich Californians and chose the ones he personally found attractive. So much for rigor.

All of which brings us back to the Gordon Bower story. When anyone, even a brilliant scholar, walks into a whole new domain of knowledge, he's at a disadvantage: he doesn't know what is and isn't known. Thus it can be hard to tell the revelatory from the obvious. Any mom of a preschooler could have told Levitt that Emma wasn't a very clever prediction. It was news to him, though, so he didn't bother to dig deeper -- even to learn that Emma was already the #2 name in America. Which is a shame, because he was sitting on an absolute treasure trove of data which doubtless does have secrets to reveal.

The fashion analysis was only half of the baby-name presentation in Freakonomics. The other, much less silly half, concerns the real-world impact of race-specific names, which I'll talk about next time.


July 18, 2019 6:21 AM

Students can avail assignment help services from our professional experts and can forget their worries.

August 1, 2019 8:01 AM

Students find great assignment writing services. We provide assignment writing services. Students can check our website to data proofreading services Australia. Our experts write genuine data with plagiarism-free. We have many experts to help you.

August 7, 2019 7:40 AM

Choose (buy) good international business dissertation topics, ideas and titles online in UK. Best business and management topics list. Check now.

August 23, 2019 1:31 AM

Thank you for sharing this. The blog is very informative. We also provide affordable mba assignment help in uk.

September 10, 2019 6:35 AM

first Drama serial is Phulwa and he gains much popularity from this serial and also a good friend of <a href="">mr faisu</a>

September 11, 2019 9:12 AM



Get swift CPM homework help answers for student-friendly prices. They won’t burn a hole in your pocket when you opt for our superb range of services.

September 24, 2019 4:44 AM




/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";

This content is very helpful and generic. [url=]Assignment Help Online [/url] is the best platform for completing assignments. This online portal is very effective and provides the quality reports at low prices. This is the place where experts mainly focus on the content quality rather than just providing the paraphrased content with quantity. [Total Assignment Help](


September 24, 2019 4:45 AM

Our Nursing assignment help service is prepared by professional nursing writers ensuring we deliver the best quality, Plagiarism Free Nursing assignment solutions that score high grades

September 28, 2019 4:03 AM


  1. Pretty! This has been a really wonderful post. Thanks for supplying this
    info. Babycare jobs 


    Rawalpindi Jobs

September 28, 2019 4:06 AM

Pretty! This has been a really wonderful post. Thanks for supplying this info. baby care jobs jobs in rawalpindi babies admission open

November 18, 2019 6:18 AM

Thanks for sharing this information.