Tag Archives: Freakonomics

What’s in a name?

what's the most intelligent baby name in australia

I’m excited to say that my wife and I are expecting our first baby in November: we’re expecting her to be born shortly after the VCE Chemistry examination! Like most new parents, I’ve been pondering baby names in the last few weeks. In particular, I’ve been looking for a girl’s name that’s traditional, popular and sounds intelligent.

The first two criteria are easy to satisfy: we can look to the Royal Family for traditional names; and the most popular baby names of 2015 are just one Google search away. However, the third criterion is a bit more difficult: what’s the most intelligent girls’ name? With this question in mind, I set out to find the most intelligent first name in Victoria based on empirical evidence from three publicly available databases.

Method: combine three public databases

I downloaded the list of 40+ VCE study scores for 2014 from the Herald Sun’s website. I cleaned the database using Microsoft Excel and obtained a neat, searchable list of 13,478 students and their VCE results that looked like this:

what's the most intelligent name in Australia
Total number of records in my database: 13,478

I removed outliers by deleting all the rare names from the list. Only names with 5 or more high achievers (40+) were included in the final analyses. Admittedly, this removed most Chinese students from the database because they have very unique first names, but I’ll expand on the implications of this later.

I then merged this database with the list of surnames and their prevalences that I obtained from IP Australia, and a similar list of first names from the NSW Government website. Now, I could query my database with interesting questions such as, “Which first name got the highest average ATAR in 2014?” and “Which surnames had the highest proportion of 40+ study scores?” The results were fascinating, and will be of some help when deciding a name for a newborn baby.


Table 1: Students called “Victor” achieved the highest mean ATAR in 2014

The 50 first names in Victoria with the highest ATAR (2014)
Victor is the most academically successful name in Victoria for 2014

The ATARs of students called Victor were far higher than the ATARs of students with any other first name. (Is that because we live in Victoria?) I’ve coloured the names blue, pink or green to represent whether the names are male, female or both.

Table 2: Hilary, Judy and Derek had the highest proportion of 40+ study scores in 2014

I added some more columns to the spreadsheet to estimate what percentage of students born with those 50 first names in 1997 in Victoria achieved a 40+ study score in at least one subject. According to my estimates, every student called Hilary, Judy or Derek achieved at least one study score of 40 or above in their 2014 VCE examinations. Correct me if I’m wrong.

forty plus first names
Students with these names excelled in at least one subject. Percentages are estimates based on 1997 population information.

Where are all the Asian names? I mentioned earlier that I removed all the rare names to eliminate outliers from the database. (This is standard practice.) The vast Chinese character set gives rise to literally millions of possible first names, which means that many Chinese students have unique first names and most of them were therefore excluded from my previous analysis. For a truer reflection of the influence of Chinese-background students in VCE, we need to look at students’ surnames instead.

“…every student called Hilary, Judy or Derek achieved at least one study score of 40 or above in their 2014 VCE examinations.”

Table 3: Students with the surname “D’Souza” achieved the highest mean ATAR in 2014

I re-ordered the list of 13,478 students to show the mean ATAR for each surname. Surprisingly, the highest achieving surname was D’Souza, which was originally Portuguese but is now found worldwide. According to Wikipedia, “A prominent family carrying the spelling de Sousa emigrated from Portugal to Goa during mid 1956 before leaving to Hong Kong. This was followed by a third relocation in the mid 1960s, where they now reside in Melbourne, Australia. The family donated their property in Hong Kong to Franciscan nuns.” Their success in Melbourne continues to this day.

top 50 surnames in vce 2014
Academically well-rounded students get a high ATAR

Chinese surnames dominated the rest of the top 50. The second-place surname, Chin, for example, comes from Qin Shi Huang, the first ever Emperor of China. He was born in 269 BC and is still regarded as one of the boldest emperors in Chinese history. It’s also believed that the English name for ‘China’ was derived from Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s name.

A few English, Korean, Irish and Vietnamese surnames also made it into the top 50. Kennedy was 273rd out of 379 surnames.

Table 4: Chinese surnames dominate 40+ study scores

An ATAR is an aggregate score of 4 to 6 subjects including English and (usually) Maths, and thus provides an indication of how well-rounded a student is academically. Next, instead of finding lists of well-rounded students, I wanted to find out which students excelled in just one or more subject. I chose study scores of 40 or above as a benchmark. I then divided the number of students with each surname who achieved at least one study score of 40+ by the number of people in Victoria who had that surname. The result is a fairer indication of which students excelled in one or more area, but didn’t necessarily excel in all subjects. The results were fascinating!

surnames with 40 plus atar
50 Shades of Red: these students excelled in at least one subject

Three Sri Lankan surnames and 47 Chinese surnames dominated the top 50. Interestingly, an estimated 23% and 22% of students surnamed Jayasinghe and Ranasinghe achieved a study score of 40+, respectively, which is many times higher than the VCE student population as a whole.

Conclusion: Names Matter!

Evidence has shown that boys who are given girls’ names (e.g. “Sue”) are far more likely to exhibit poor behaviour and low academic outcomes than their peers with more appropriate, boy-ish names. . A study involving 5,000 job applications revealed that applicants with “Black-sounding” names like Lakisha and Jamal were 33% less likely to land a job interview than their equally-qualified counterparts with “White-sounding” names such as Emily and Greg. In South Carolina, Patrick McLaughlin presented evidence to support the Portia Hypothesis, in which women with masculine-sounding names were more likely to succeed in the legal profession than an otherwise-identical counterpart.

Exactly how much do names matter? To what extent does a name determine your destiny? Let me know in the comments section below.

Book: SuperFreakonomics

Sequel to Freakonomics.

Crowd-pleasing. More Freakonomics.
320 pages, ★★★★★

SuperFreakonomics challenges the way we think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such questions as:

  • How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?
  • Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?
  • How much good do car seats do?
  • What’s the best way to catch a terrorist?
  • Did TV cause a rise in crime?
  • What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
  • Are people hard-wired for altruism or selfishness?
  • Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
  • Which adds more value: a pimp or a Realtor?

SuperFreakonomics pleases the same audience as Freakonomics (excitable rebellious young males—the Top Gear crowd). In fact, when I first read this book aged 21, the idea that volcanoes, stratospheric aerosols and specific types of clouds can have a huge influence on global temperatures fascinated me. I liked it so much that I copied basically the entire chapter on climate change completely unknowingly into an ‘important’ university essay. I began researching contrails and cloud-brightening ships obsessively, and even applied to do PhD projects on climatology. That’s how much this book inspired me!

This book inspires other young people, too. Best of all, SuperFreakonomics gets kids reading. ★★★★★

Also consider: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (similar level, more sociological); and The Big Short by Michael Lewis (advanced level, more about finance than economics).

Book: Freakonomics


Modern classic. Trains logic, rational thinking and rigid essay structure.
336 pages, ★★★★★

Freakonomics is a collection of humorous essays that use economics to explain real-life situations. Its overall message is that prejudice can be overcome by rational thinking.

I taught to students at a Beijing secondary school back in 2011, and they loved it. First, kids love reading about money. Second, it sates kids’ appetite for controversy: where else can you learn about abortion, drug dealers, racism and the KKK in one class? Finally, its highly logical structure allows you to lose concentration half-way through and still understand the rest of the book. Similar books (e.g. David Brooks’ The Social Animal and Neil Strauss’ The Game) also gripped them in a way that novels and fiction didn’t.

Freakonomics‘ only shortcoming is that it lacks an overarching narrative. You could read the chapters in reverse order and still get the same message! While it would be easy to teach just rational, logical non-fiction, schools should balance this book with ‘realistic fiction’ to develop character arc and story structure skills in their English curricula. ★★★★★

Book: Science is Golden

Science is Golden
Science is Golden, and so is this book.

Freakonomics for middle-school children.
252 pages, ★★★★

Science is Golden is as informal as its cover suggests. It’s a humorous tour of science from the highly relevant (plane travel) to the highly irrelevant (black holes). Each chapter is clearly illustrated and contains no more than five pages of text.

The author not only contemplates (and subtly mocks) absurd theories about a 2012 apocalypse, and busts dozens of myths with scientific evidence, but also loads his writing with interesting facts that go beyond the original topic of each chapter. We learn about the iridescent keratin structures in peacock feathers; the difference between a meteoroid, a meteor and a meteorite, and the origin of the 40,000 tons per year that the Earth gains in mass. Most memorably, we learn about the structure and function of a spotted hyena’s clitoris. You’ll be amused and surprised.

Everything in this book is presented with calmness, balance, and undertones of fun. It touches on sex (e.g. the spotted hyena chapter), but even those parts are written in a very responsible way. The language level, fonts and cover design of this book are clearly aimed at a young-teenage age group. And I’d have no hesitations in recommending it my own science students.

Where Freakonomics is for high-school students, and Stephen J. Gould is for university students, Science is Golden is for middle school students. Let Dr Karl Kruszelnicki convince them that science is cool★★★★


Book: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational
Squiggles. Soft fonts and soft colour schemes represent the soft, balanced tone of the author very well.

A happy investigation into life’s tiny decisions. A classic.
280 pages, ★★★★

The author, Dan Ariely, survived an explosion when he was 18. Lying on his hospital bed, his body covered in burns, he began to contemplate the irrationality of what had just happened. This accident spawned a fascination with irrationality—out of which, this Predictably Irrational was born.

Chapter 1 explains how people think in relative, not absolute, terms. Not only our senses, but also our perception of value, is relative. Expensive upgrades (like insurance and optional extras) only seem worthwhile when you’re buying something even more expensive. (A $330 pasta machine seems cheap when compared with a $1000 KitchenAid, but not on its own.)

Chapters 5 and 6 talk about self-control. Our aroused selves (chapter 5) and our future selves (chapter 6) don’t listen to what our present selves are saying. This explains why people sometimes don’t use condoms, don’t save for the future, and don’t do their homework on time, even when students are allowed to create their own deadlines. (Even I do it, too—I didn’t write my promised Chinese Sencha review yesterday.)

Chapter 8 ventures into economics. I like how Dan Ariely comments not only on the experimental psychology aspects (where participants click coloured doors on a computer in an experiment), but also on what these experiments teach us about real-life situations as well (he argues in favour of long-term relationships and marriage, which I like). I find this comforting to read. When I agree with an author’s moral standing, I’ll enjoy reading their books more, and probably learn more as well. (In contrast, see my unflattering reviews of such morally-bankrupt stories as I Love DollarsHocus Pocus and The Time Traveller’s Wife.)

Chapters 9 and 10 talk about appearances. A big, red, placebo pill priced at $2.50 works better than a small, white placebo pill priced at 10 cents. Coca-cola tastes better than Pepsi, but only if you’re told what you’re drinking. Likewise, the idea that “top universities” give you a “top-notch education” is largely based on fantasy. I found that out myself.

Finally, chapters 11 to 13 are really summaries. I enjoyed them, yet skimmed them.

Dan Ariely is an excellent science communicator. I am very comfortable reading an author who writes with such politeness and balance (sometimes, he even adds concluding sentences that ward off critics—in the style of “don’t get me wrong”). He has a rare ability to deliver the outcomes of scientific research in clear, easy-to-understand language. He illustrates each chapter with poignant examples, including some from his own life—but only when they are most appropriate. The Jobst suit example served perfectly in chapter 10.

Predictably Irrational is a guide to the tiny decisions in life; a piecemeal, micro-bible, and at the same time, light, interesting and balanced to read. ★★★★