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Laramie Movie Scope:

Using mathematics to reveal hidden truths

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 19, 2010 -- One of the reasons I liked the TV series “Numbers” was that it showed how mathematics could be used to reveal hidden patterns in everyday events. The movie “Freakonomics,” does something similar. The film is based on a book of the same name written by economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, who also appear in the film to explain their concepts and motivations.

Freakonomics the movie is a real hodgepodge of ideas and themes, directed by six different documentary filmmakers. It lacks any real cohesion or central theme. It does, however, have some interesting segments. Easily the most controversial one is “It's Not Always a Wonderful Life,” about the about the relationship between the legalization of abortion in America and the resulting drop in the crime rate. Levitt argues that abortion accounts for about half the crime rate drop that started in 1992. Previously, other experts offered a variety of explanations, some politically motivated, for the sudden drop in crime all across the country. Abortion was not thought to be a factor by most. Levitt and John Donohue wrote a paper in 2001 called “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime.” The same topic is discussed in chapter four of Levitt and Dubner's book.

The movie makes it look like Levitt started this controversy, but it has been around for at least 40 years, according to a Wikipedia article on abortion and crime. The article says that the controversy did not arise with the Levitt-Donohue study, it merely revived it. The movie makes a pretty good case for the theory, noting that crime rates in states which enacted abortion earlier experienced drops in their crime rates earlier than in states where abortion was illegal prior to Roe V. Wade. It is pretty clear that opposition to this study is based on morality and ideology, not math, although there was reportedly a flaw in one table in the original study. The segment is spiced up with clips from the movie “It's A Wonderful Life.” With the internet and the proliferation of specialized media, anyone can avoid uncomfortable opinions like this that are at odds with one's world view. Some people will definitely want to skip this movie for that reason. Levitt makes it clear he does not endorse abortion as a crime fighting tool. He says he is merely reporting what the numbers indicate to be an inconvenient truth.

Another interesting segment, “Pure Corruption,” concerns Sumo wrestling in Japan. A fairly simple analysis of wrestling results shows that Sumo wrestlers routinely throw matches. This is surprising since Sumo is intimately connected with the religion of Shinto and the wrestlers live by a rigorous code of honor. One of the more shocking aspects of this segment is the evidence of the murder of two whistleblowers, former wrestlers who wrote a series of articles about corruption in Sumo wrestling. The police declined to investigate the suspicious deaths of these two men. The film argues that police don't investigate crimes in Japan that are hard to solve, and Japanese society is not as open as some others. Secrets, like who murdered these men, can remain buried forever.

Other segments include “A Roshanda by Any Other Name,” a discussion of parenting and how children's names affect their lives, segments on real estate, incentives, cause and effect and cheating. The lengthy incentive segment, “Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed?” details a study which seeks to determine if grade school students' academic performance can be improved by cash rewards and prizes. At the end, Levitt and Dubner sum up by saying they have a mandate to put aside their own moral and political beliefs in the pursuit of truths. The minute they take sides, they lose their credibility. They also argue that they ask the kinds of questions that children sometimes ask and they question conventional wisdom the way that children sometimes do. While most people stop doing this as they get older, Levitt and Dubner never stopped. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2010 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)