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5 of my favourite Freakonomics episodes

I can remember very vividly when I first started listening to podcasts regularly, like a lot of people, Serial Season 1 was my gateway drug. I listened to the radio when I was a teenager- a French radio station called Oui FM, which played an addictive mix of grungy American bands, French electro-pop and rock classics- but other than that and the odd Desert Island Discs, radio hadn’t featured in my adult life at all. Now I know that podcasts aren’t exactly radio- the way that we consume them episodically is very different, closer to television- but they share the same characteristics as radio and are often made by radio stations.

Serial was something extraordinary, one of the best storytelling experiences I’ve ever had. As each episode unfolded I held my breath amazed at how the line between fact and fiction, truth and uncertainty melted away. I have to admit that I haven’t quite found anything to match it yet, not even the second season or S Town, which I enjoyed but also made me feel a little uneasy because I was never sure whether it was too invasive. Anyway, Serial was enough to show me that podcasts could fit into my life in a completely new way and could bring me incredible stories, fascinating information and great conversations in a way that television and film couldn’t- without the complication of images. When I listen to episodes through my headphones or on the stereo, I find I focus in a different way. I feel like I’m sitting in on a great conversation with amazing friends or completely absorbed in story and the outside world fades away for an hour. It’s lovely.

I now have a strong list of podcast series that I listen to every week, I rarely miss a single episode from my core favourites. Freakonomics is one of those core favourites. Early on in my growing podcast addiction, it was suggested as ‘A podcast I might like’ based on my other choices. I dismissed the recommendation immediately…ridiculous manipulative ‘personal recommendations’…how little you know me.

I assumed it was about economics and economics seemed dull, needlessly overcomplicated, and completely removed from the real world. That may be true about most economic reporting but Freakonomics is not like any other reporting. The two show creators Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt use economics as a starting point to ask huge questions about society, behaviour, history, and the future. With each episode, as Dubner interviews academics, journalists, scientists and regular people, I feel like I am sitting in on the best dinner party conversation or an incredible university lecture. I never fail to walk away feeling that exciting buzz of curiosity, like you used to get as a kid when you came across something entirely new and fascinating. I can’t think of a better way to learn about the world.

‘What are the Secrets of the German Economy and Should we Steal Them?’

This episode is great because it means that I can finally join in with answers when people comment about Germany being the best example of a steady economy in Europe and wonder about why that is. The revelations are fascinating and I love any discussion that asks whether one country can borrow ideas from another- how transferable are our societies?

‘Why don’t we all speak the same language?’

Have you ever wondered this? In many ways we are approaching the time when this would be technologically possible…if we could get around the politics. Which is why this episode is excellent because it looks at reasons and obstacles that you wouldn’t necessarily think of, beyond just politic disagreement. And if you enjoy this one then make sure to listen to the one right afterwards, it goes on to ask what the pros and cons of us all speaking the same language would be.

‘Is Income Inequality Inevitable?’

Income inequality is a huge, incredibly worrying problem and this episode asks the difficult question- is it an inevitable part of human society? Should we continue to fight it? And how? This is such a huge overwhelming issue and the discussion here breaks it down and provides it with some historical context.

‘How to Get More Grit in your Life.’

When I’m teaching, I think about what Angela Duckworth calls ‘grit’ every day. How can I transmit to my students what I could never grasp at school- that you get better with practice, that you have to be patient and stick at it…whatever that is. This episode covers Angela Duckworth’s research and gives practical tips and examples of why grit is so important. You can test your own grit levels on her excellent website which also has lots of extra information about her research.

‘In Praise of Incrementalism’

I found this episode really important last year and I have a feeling I will be listening to it again this year. The real subject here is change and how change can sometimes feel slow but, if you keep moving forward in increments, you can achieve a huge amount. I think this is an incredibly hopeful reminder that we can act and make a difference but we have to remember that small steps lead into big ones. They give the example of same sex marriage in this episode to show how, if we look at change over decades, we can see great positive developments. Of course, it can also go the other way…which is why we need to keep looking closely at the present and any historical context.

Photo of Stephen J. Dubner by Troy Tuttle.

 

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