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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

When Freakonomics was published in 2006, I gulped it down in a single sitting. Then I dipped back into it, savoring its provocative blend of anecdote and analysis. Although I've always been intrigued by the 'dismal science' of economics, in Freakonomics, I was also entertained, especially with Levitt & Dubner's unusual choice of examples ranging from Sumo wrestling to drug-dealing to the effects of legalized abortion on crime rates. Because of this, I check out the Freakonomics Blog on a daily basis, and I subscribe to the Freakonomics podcast. In other words, I am a certifiable Freakonomics freak.

So, when Superfreakonomics was published last year, I snapped it up. As with the previous book, I devoured it in a single sitting and then went back through it again, with a more critical eye.

I have read lots of books once. When I take the time to read a book twice, that's saying something. And my second readings are usually slower and more analytical as I pay attention to factors like how a book is structured. So what I'm saying here is that Superfreakonomics passes my first criteria of worthiness: it's worth at least twice the time it takes me to finish it. But there are other reasons I recommend reading this book, and not all of them are favorable to Levitt & Dubner.

Like their first book, in Superfreakonomics, Levitt & Dubner once again use unusual -- and often counterintuitive -- anecdotes to illustrate their basic economic argument, which they conveniently provide in the book's preface:
"People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences."
This argument, which also animated Freakonomics, is nothing new. But, as I said, in Superfreakonomics, Levitt & Dubner elaborate their argument with unusual evidence, this time including such gems as the falling price of fellatio and how data-mining of banking behavior can help find potential terrorists.

One of the more controversial parts of Freakonomics concerned its findings on abortion. In that book, the authors persuasively argued that the legalization of abortion helped cause the lowering of national crime rates throughout the 1990's. Levitt & Dubner went to great pains to explain that their argument was not an endorsement of abortion. It was merely an exploration of the unintended consequences of our nation's legal position on a deeply divisive issue.

Similarly, Superfreaknomics takes on the issue of global warming, making a provocative case for a particular method of geoengineering. Unfortunately, their case for "Budyko's Blanket" -- which is essentially a floating pump for injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere -- is nowhere near as strong as their case for the crime-lowering effects of abortion.

Still, their explanation of the logic that led them to "Budyko's Blanket" is interesting. It is, in fact, a logically cohesive and persuasive argument for testing one possible solution to the growing problem of climate change. As such, it's a fine example of the kind of reasoned, evidence-based argument that should be the norm for policy debates regarding global problems.

And Superfreakonomics' position on "Budyko's Blanket" is also fascinating for its evidence-based approach. Most people just jump to conclusions (based on preconceptions, emotions, and biases), and then find reasons to support those conclusions. This is why simplistic, reductive ideologies are so popular. They make it seem easy to approach any complex issue and find a simple, straightforward solution. But the world is full of lush complexities that defy simple & straightforward approaches.

However, the problem of global warming is just too complex to tackle in a single section of a single book, even one as good as Superfreakonomics. In other words, Levitt & Dubner's evidence & initial assumptions about global warming do not take all significant factors into account before they formulate their conclusion about "Budyko's Blanket." A well-put criticism of their position can be found here in a piece from MIT's Technology Review. Tim Lambert, a computer scientist at the University of New South Wales who writes the "Deltoid Blog," also makes a nice, 10-point refutation of Levitt & Dubner in his blog. And the Union of Concerned Scientists has published a comprehensive webpage regarding their disagreements with Superfreakonomics.

In my own opinion, Levitt & Dubner aren't necessarily wrong about the possible effectiveness of "Budyko's Blanket" in slowing global warming. I just don't think they make a persuasive case. Too many of the factors they cite as evidence (such as the effects of sulfur dioxide on the atmosphere) are ambiguous, and too many other factors aren't even taken into account at all (such as the future effect of technological innovations in power generation and emissions control). The case they made about the effects of abortion in Freakonomics is much more sound.

Even if its conclusions about global warming are wrong, Superfreakonomics is entertaining and thought-provoking in all the right ways. Besides the anecdotes regarding the economics of prostitution or the measurement of doctor performance, the story of how seatbelts finally got adopted by the American automobile industry is especially rewarding. Despite the incredible amount of evidence proving the effectiveness of seatbelts, the automotive industry and the American driving public did not really adopt their use until a set of circumstances occurred to make seatbelts seem...almost cool. It's a story Levitt & Dubner tell well.

Also, economics-based reasoning is refreshing because it generally cuts through all the ideological claptrap that people carry around by focusing on how they really act. As any good poker player can tell you, we can talk a good game, but our real characters shine through when there's money at stake, as Superfreakonomics points out in an experiment using baseball card dealers. Religion & politics can run their ideological shell-games, but I prefer to follow the cash when trying to figure out what people are really like. And Superfreakonomics, with its anecdotes on the limits of altruism and on the capitalist capacities of monkeys, is eye-opening in its revelations of actual behavior.

I urge you to read both Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, if only to immerse yourself in the kind of evidence-based reasoning that, while not perfect, is the kind of thinking that is all too rare in our public sphere. Besides all that, these books are also just plain fun.

by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

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