Freakonomics' Stephen Dubner on Why We Love Cheating in Sports
Deflategate. A-Rod. Drama erupts anytime the American public suspects our star athletes of cheating. But is the drama just an extension of the sport?
Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality. He is best-known for writing, along with the economist Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics (2005) and SuperFreakonomics (2009), which have sold more than 5 million copies in 35 languages. Their latest books are When to Rob a Bank... and Think Like a Freak (2014).
Dubner is also the author of Turbulent Souls/Choosing My Religion (1998), Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper (2003), and the children's book The Boy With Two Belly Buttons (2007). His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Crime Writing, and others.
Freakonomics, published in April 2005, was an instant international best-seller and cultural phenomenon. It made numerous "books of the year" lists, a few "books of the decade" lists, and won a variety of awards, including the inaugural Quill Award, a BookSense Book of the Year Award, and a Visionary Award from the National Council on Economic Education. It was also named a Notable Book by the New York Times. SuperFreakonomics, published in 2009, was published to similar acclaim, and also became an international best-seller.
The Freakonomics enterprise also includes an award-winning blog, a high-profile documentary film, and a public-radio project called Freakonomics Radio, which Dubner hosts. He has also appeared widely on television, including a three-year stint on ABC News as a Freakonomics contributor. He also appeared on the reality show Beauty and the Geek. Alas, he played neither beauty nor geek.
Dubner's first book, Turbulent Souls, was also named a Notable Book, and was a finalist for the Koret National Jewish Book Award. It was republished in 2006 under a new title, Choosing My Religion, and is currently being developed as a film.
The eighth and last child of an upstate New York newspaperman, Dubner has been writing since he was a child. (His first published work appeared in Highlights magazine.) As an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, he started a rock band that was signed to Arista Records, which landed him in New York City. He ultimately quit playing music to earn an M.F.A. in writing at Columbia University, where he also taught in the English Department. He was an editor and writer at New York magazine and The New York Times before quitting to write books. He is happy he did so.
He lives in New York with his wife, the documentary photographer Ellen Binder, and their two delicious children.
Stephen Dubner: I love sports and I love playing sports. I like games, playing games. And whenever, you know, you hear about or think about cheating, I think most of us say oh, you know, the knee-jerk response is: "That’s terrible." Like people shouldn’t cheat, right. They shouldn’t break the rules. But I got to thinking about it and sometimes when I read the sports section of a newspaper, particularly, it seems like about three-quarters of the articles are about some version of cheating, right. Either contractually or performance-enhancing or trying to gain some advantage outside the rules. And I got to thinking, you know, maybe we actually like it that way.
Cheating is just like the heightened version of wanting to win really, really badly. So in a way, you kind of admire the people who cheat to win. Now cheating to lose is different. And we punish no one more than the people who like throw games. Cheating to lose, we really don’t like. But cheating to win I think we kind of get it. We say that, you know, even if it’s like Alex Rodriguez who’s, you know, I live in New York. He went from being one of the — he’s still one of the most famous athletes in the last 50 years, but went from being revered for his unbelievable talent to being one of the most despised athletes because he just cheated over and over again and kept lying about it and kept getting caught in a very kind of ham-handed way. But even so you kind of have to respect someone who wants so badly to win and to do better that they’re willing to give themselves human growth hormones or whatever. So in that way, I kind of think that cheating is like something that we root for a little bit. We get it. We identify with it.
Deflategate. I mean it’s kind of idiotic in one way. On the other hand look how totally obsessed we are with the fact that the New England Patriots may have taken, I don’t know, a half-pound or a pound square inch of air pressure out of the footballs. We love it. And so like as a moralist, you say, "Cheating is bad. We should decry all cheating. Cheating in sports is terrible." But as a person, if you look at how much we love it and as an economist, you know, you look at not what people say they love, but what they actually do. Like not what, you know, if you ask people how are you going to — I’ll give you $100. How are you going to spend it? "Oh, I’m going to give $50 away and then I’ll use the other $30 to buy a present for my friend. Then maybe the other bit I’ll buy something for myself." But then if you watch how the people – then if you give people $100 and see how they actually spend it, they don’t give half away, right. So we might say we hate cheating, but I think in our hearts we kind of love it because it gives us something else to talk about when the games are over.
Deflategate. A-Rod. Drama erupts anytime the American public suspects our star athletes of cheating. But Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics and of the new book When to Rob a Bank believes there's a dirty little secret beneath all the fuss: We actually love it.
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How Nobel Prize winner physicist Lev Landau ranked the best physics minds of his generation.
Rank 0.5 – Albert Einstein<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NDY3NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI2NTU4OH0.FtBYC7oJz-ZOiiGC9y0Z50_JvQChmp-ONa3jhR3SuLA/img.jpg?width=980" id="d6f66" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61288810a4f035ec2af8957fad4e9015" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Albert Einstein With Displaced Children From Concentration Camps. 1949.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Rank 1<p>The group in this class of the smartest physicists included the top minds that developed the theories of quantum mechanics.</p><p><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Heisenberg" target="_blank">Werner Heisenberg</a> (1901 - 1976) - a German theoretical physicist, who's achieved pop-culture fame by being the name of Walter White's alter ego in <em>Breaking Bad</em>. He is known for the Heiseinberg Uncertainty Principle and his 1932 Nobel Prize award flatly states it was for nothing less than "the creation of quantum mechanics".</p><p><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erwin_Schr%C3%B6dinger" target="_blank">Erwin Schrödinger</a> (1887 - 1961) - an Austrian-Irish physicist who gave us the infamous "Schroedinger's Cat" thought experiment and other mind-benders from quantum mechanics. The Nobel-prize-winner's <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger_equation" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Schrödinger equation</a> calculates the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_function" target="_blank">wave function</a> of a system and how it changes over time. </p>
Erwin Schrödinger. 1933.
Satyendra Nath Bose. 1930s.
Enrico Fermi. 1950s.
Rank 2.5<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NDcwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDE1MDIxM30.Eg6tca61EredHxjqNH29HY3UeJbgBVa1nA13EhXTooU/img.jpg?width=980" id="90f86" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0f1e6c5e13263a77b2061e1191fd8baf" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Lev Landau. 1962.<p><strong>Rank 2.5</strong> is where Landau initially ranked himself, rather modestly, thinking he didn't produce any foundational accomplishments. He later moved his prominence, as his achievement mounted, to the higher <strong>1.5.</strong></p>
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