On Wednesday, Aug. 22, at 5:30 pm, the UNC Department of Philosophy will host Stephen Dubner, co-author of New York Times bestseller Freakonomics, and host of Freakonomics Radio. Before his lecture at Gerrard Hall, Dubner spoke to The Daily Tar Heel about what brought him to UNC, how to handle fame and how to bring the Freakonomics mindset to campus.
The Daily Tar Heel: What brought you to Chapel Hill?
Stephen Dubner: It was just good serendipity. Geoff Sayre-McCord — who I don’t know well but we interviewed for one of our episodes a year or two ago — had written to someone, maybe one of our producers asking if I would ever be in Chapel Hill to give a talk for his program … My (college) band was invited to reunite to play for an hour at Cat's Cradle on Friday night as part of this benefit for a cancer foundation. When that arose, I responded to Geoff and said, “Hey, I could give a talk at Carolina for your department, but it would have to be this one day, Wednesday afternoon, because we’re going to be rehearsing the other days for our show Friday,” and he made that work. I’m killing two really fun birds with one stone by coming to Chapel Hill, which is giving a fun lecture and getting to play with my old band.
DTH: In order to find a lot of the “hidden side of everything,” you have to ask the right questions. How do you do that?
SD: I routinely read papers from academia, mostly economics but from psychology and sociology and sometimes there are just topics that are inherently interesting. That’s how I got started in this with my co-author Steve Levitt. He’s someone who’s just done a lot of research on things that make you sit up and say, “Wow, I would love to know more about why people give their kids the names they do, I would love to know more about the economics of a crack-selling gang, I would love to know about whether there’s collusion in sumo wrestling. A lot of it is just retaining childlike curiosity we all had when we were kids, but often gets beaten out of us as we get older and more serious.
DTH: How do you handle criticism? With an ongoing podcast, you’re always in the spotlight as opposed to the publicity a book would receive.
SD: One of the things I learned about Steve Levitt from Steve Levitt, is that most of the people in the world who do really great work in whatever field, they don’t care that much about what other people think … The fact is that if you’re worrying so much about other people’s perception of you, then you spend a lot of time not thinking your own thoughts.
DTH: What lessons have you learned that college students should really pay attention to?
SD: I know a lot of people go to college because they want to have a good career, and that’s what their parents want too, and I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, I also have come to believe that the people who do the best work in their life are going to be the ones who so love what they do that they drove themselves harder than any sane person would drive themselves to do.
DTH: What are ways that we can look at our school with a Freakonomics mindset?
SD: I think challenging conventional wisdom is really important, even if the authority figures hate it. You should challenge it with data, and not just opinion. I think that’s the biggest challenge for people. I also think that there are good years to be a radical. Everyone is going to settle down soon enough. If there’s a period in your life when you’re going to be a truly radical thinker, it should be right now, so don’t talk yourself out of it.
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