Superfreakonomics reviewed

17th October, 2009

Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Allen Lane £20, 288 pages

For fans of the multimillion-selling pop-economics book, Freakonomics, all that needs to be said is that the sequel’s title is an accurate description. This book is a lot like Freakonomics, but better.
The original, a runaway hit, had its genesis in Stephen Dubner’s masterful New York Times Magazine profile of “rogue economist” Steven Levitt. “Rogue” may be stretching it a bit, because Levitt is, in fact, a garlanded and hugely influential professor at the University of Chicago.
He has applied his statistical techniques, now much emulated, to unconventional topics such as the link between abortion laws and crime, or whether sumo wrestlers cheat (they do, he concludes). The 2005 book that resulted was wide-ranging, fascinating and above all, likeable – however, it showed signs of haste, and it was never clear whether it was supposed to be a book by Steven Levitt or about him.
Book cover of ‘SuperFreakonomics’ by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J DubnerSuperFreakonomics offers much the same range and amiability, but is more polished. The book’s chapters cover prostitution; data analysis in healthcare and counter-terrorism; altruism; innovation; and geo-engineering. The reader may not guess the central topic from the chapter titles or the opening pages, however, which betray a fondness for springing surprises and putting twists in the storytelling.
Detours are all part of the style; an afternoon reading SuperFreakonomics is like one of those thrilling and occasionally frustrating conversations where ideas tumble out so quickly that they keep interrupting each other. In short, the book’s organisation is deliberately on the freaky side, but if you simply resolve to read it from cover to cover you are guaranteed a good time.
My favourite chapter describes the research of John List, a colleague of Levitt’s, as he zaps some of the most famous results in behavioural economics. In the “dictator” game, well-known in economic circles, player A is given $10 by the experimenter and told they can keep it all. Alternatively they can give some to anonymous player B. Many players do, indeed, hand over money, a finding that troubles conventional economic theory.
List thinks many researchers have embraced this finding too easily, however. “What is puzzling”, he comments, “is that neither I nor any of my family of friends (or their families and friends) have ever received an anonymous envelope stuffed with cash”. The lab experiments, in which large numbers of students display a preference for sending cash to anonymous strangers, need to be questioned more closely. Yet List showed that with small modifications to the dictator game, experimental subjects could be persuaded not only to curb their generosity, but to confiscate cash from others.
There is much more here, and all is told with verve and care. Levitt and Dubner have a gift for explaining precisely how a researcher discovers something. Their epilogue, on Keith Chen’s attempts to introduce currency to a monkey society, is a model of how to tell a gripping story of scientific research without compromising on accuracy.
The most eye-catching chapters in the book are the first, on prostitution, and the last, on global warming. The chapter on prostitution flits from academic research into street prostitution, carried out by Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, to an engaging profile of a high-end escort and various digressions into the economics of gender and other topics.
One of these asides provides the book’s best moment: when the authors demonstrate that a prostitute gets more money through the use of a pimp than a homeowner gets through the use of a realtor, or estate agent. The financial impact of a pimp is greater than that of a realtor, “Or, for those who prefer their conclusions rendered mathematically, PIMPACT > RIMPACT.”
Those with a prurient curiosity (I am guilty), will find some of the descriptions of what prostitutes do all day rather coy. Those with an interest in the economic angle (guilty, again), will find some questions unanswered.
“The real puzzle isn’t why someone like Allie becomes a prostitute, but rather why more women don’t choose this career,” Levitt and Dubner write. Do tell, thinks the reader, but they don’t, even though literature on the puzzle does exist. The leading research on the question is written by two women, not two men, a fact that some people will find relevant.
The analysis of street prostitution is based on careful academic work. The account of high-end prostitution is merely a journalistic profile of a single successful and intelligent woman. But Levitt and Dubner seem to have decided that while data-driven discoveries are generally wonderful, you can have too much of a good thing.
The authors claim to prefer data to “individual anecdote”, but part of the secret of their success is that they like a good story more than anyone.
As for the final chapter on global warming, it is a striking discussion of geo-engineering, surveying various schemes for cooling down the planet rather than trying to prevent climate change by cutting carbon emissions. This is a strong story, but it is also one-sided, portraying the geo-engineers as brilliant iconoclasts, dismissing the objections to geo-engineering as the knee-jerk reaction of the unreflective, and failing to convey the views of a single credible geo-engineering sceptic. A well-deserved swipe at Al Gore does not really count.
According to this chapter, the only reason everyone is making so much fuss about carbon dioxide is that they’ve never heard of geo-engineering, or are the kind of stubborn Luddites who think technology never solved anything. I have some sympathy with that view but the section nevertheless needed more balance.
In the end, a book such as SuperFreakonomics stands or falls on its entertainment value. And on that count, there’s no doubt: it’s a page-turner.
More revealing, though, was that I’d folded over at least a dozen pages, resolving to go back, follow up the references, and find out more. This is a book with plenty of style; underneath the dazzle, there is substance too.

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