All feature in the work of US economist Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics work. Today's Guardian has a feature by Gary Younge on him, Why bagels could hold the key to human behaviour, with some interesting quotes:
"I don't have strong political views," says Levitt. "I don't find the idea of politics itself very interesting. I try to ask questions that are of personal interest to me. Questions where conventional wisdom will probably be wrong and problems that are really easy but look really hard."
Levitt has a method, and a microeconomic framework, but no overarching theory:
Levitt, an economics lecturer at the University of Chicago, refers to himself as a data detective. "I'm not a great economist," he says. "I'm not an intellectual. But everybody has got their framework for the way they think about the world. Mine just happens to be a micro-economic framework. It's the story of how people respond to incentives. The scripts that run through my head tend to be those kinds of scripts."
...To the extent that Levitt has a method this is it - searching for numerical data that will answer questions and make or break connections that have become embedded "conventional wisdom". His work shows no overarching theme or underlying philosophy that draws it altogether.
His is a "just the facts, ma'm" approach:
Levitt just follows the facts, setting out with a question in mind rather than an answer and hoping the data will lead him there. If some holy cows get slaughtered in the process then so be it. "Facts are amoral," says Levitt. "I don't think we should shy away from facts that people don't want to hear."
An understandable approach. But 'facts' are rarely simple, or neutral. How they are defined, measured, and conceptualised of necessity embody a raft of assumptions and biases. Even humble fact grubbers may discover they have to grapple with messy methodological and epistemological issues every now and then.