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Meet the minds behind Freakonomics

The "odd couple" of publishing is responsible for a new and distinctly quirky way of looking at human behavior, all of it done under the banner of the made-up word "Freakonomics": Martha Teichner now with a tale of two authors:

Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner are rehearsing a video promo for their new book, "Think Like a Freak."

Dubner: "This time, we actually tried to help you think like us -- and then you say something like, 'Not that you'd wanna think like us blah, blah, blah.'"
Levitt: "So what if I say something like, 'Isn't it amazing that people wanna think like us?' And then you say something like, about the blah, blah blah...'"
Dubner: "Wait, but how's it diffferent than what we've done before?"

But you know what? They're always like that, sort of like an old married couple.

In case you haven't heard of the "Freakonomics" phenomenon, just let it be said that the first book, published in 2005, has now sold more than 4 million copies.

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William Morrow
So what is Freakonomics?

Basically, Levitt and Dubner have boatloads of fun upending the known world using economics, lumping together apples and oranges. They've compared sumo wrestlers and Chicago teachers. The common denominator? Some cheat.

They prove that, contrary to popular opinion, unconventional baby names don't doom their recipients.

"I think a freak, to me, is someone who's different, but usually freaks rejoice in their differentness," said Levitt.

"We're not really encouraged or trained or given the opportunity, really, to think for ourselves," said Dubner. "And I think that's what a freak is, is simply someone who's able and willing to think for yourself."

The pairing of these two self-declared "freaks" is unlikely. Dubner almost became a rock star, with a recording contract even, but quit to be a writer. "Writing was just the thing that I loved," he said. "Words are just constantly coming in and going out, like this estuary."

Levitt studied economics at Harvard and then MIT, but was terrible at math. "It was a bloodbath from the moment I showed up at MIT," he said.

So what happened? "I'm a little bit odd," he said. "I mean, I'm interested in odd things, and I just said, 'I'm not gonna worry. I'm just gonna take the topics that interest me, things like crime and corruption and cheating."

So the concept of Freakonomics was born. long before there was such a word. Levitt became an award-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and a rising star.

Meanwhile, Stephen Dubner was living in New York City. Lately, he's been hosting a podcast and radio program on NPR, but before Freakonomics he was writing for the New York Times Magazine and was assigned a profile of Levitt.

Levitt recalled: "I wasn't really interested in having the article written, but it was the New York Times! So, 36 hours of interviews later, I've never been happier to see somebody go!" he laughed.

"I think the fact that we turned out to be good partners was not remotely pre-ordained or even would've been easy to predict," said Dubner.

It wasn't their idea to write a book together, but a publisher offered them so much money they couldn't say no. Levitt's sister thought of the name: "I told her, 'Hey, this is the book,' gave her a copy of it, and within about 15 minutes, she said, 'Freakonomics'! And I said, 'You're right!'" Somehow that word just epitomizes something about the core of what we do."