By Alex Morrison 2010/08/30

Not unexpectedly, Stephen Dubner, the co-author of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, likes telling stories. But he sometimes introduces them in extreme ways:

“Raise your hand if you don’t wash your hands after using a public restroom,” Stephen said as he addressed the Tableau Customer Conference Wednesday.

There was a long pause as audience members warily eyed each other. No one offered up a hand.

“I know a bunch of you, particularly the men, are lying to me,” Stephen said.

And he had the data to back up his accusation – he has personally been monitoring male hand washing behavior at airports and about 30 percent don’t wash.

Stephen didn’t blame Tableau Customers (who, no doubt, have far better hygiene than the rest of the population) for withholding the truth. He blamed his data collection method – who would ever expose themselves to the ridicule and high social cost of raising a hand in this situation?

Stephen used this as an introduction into a perplexing and rather disturbing problem – how to get doctors to wash their hands. It was an interesting story that relied heavily on data and the problem of accurate collection. And it was representative of his overall approach to telling and investigating stories.

“We try to build stories around the data,” Stephen said. “We try to ignore the anecdote.”

Stephen told other interesting, quirky and shocking stories – about mankind’s altruistic nature (or lack of it), about an experiment that taught monkeys to use (and abuse) money, and about how the city of Johannesburg put a bounty on dead rats in hopes of curbing its rodent problem only to see the bounty create a new industry of urban rat farming.

It was a great start to another day of the Tableau Customer Conference.


Aha, someone who was there.

The rat farming analogy caused a great deal of confusion at ThreatPost -- where the reporter suggests that it was an analogy for Mozilla-style bug bounties, yet could not follow that analogy through -- the bug bounty has not resulted in people creating bugs.

Any chance you could tell us what Dubner's analogy really was? Or was it an analogy at all (or just an interesting story).