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Less than super freakonomics

October 28th, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Life · 3 Comments · Life

After getting past the mental stumbling block of Snark I whipped through Superfreakonomics in no time at all. This was another book I received through Amazon’s Vine programme free in return for a review.  I had read the authors’ first book, Freakonomics, and greatly enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to this one.

Unfortunately I was disappointed, partly through having expectations raised so high they would have been difficult to satisfy, but also through real shortcomings in the book itself.There is a lot of media attention on the book, mostly a result of an iconoclastic chapter on climate change.  It is hard to summarise a lengthy chapter in a few lines so, shorn of any subtleties, it will be presented as either a declaration that climate change can be fixed so there is no need to think green, or twisted to support claims that climate change is a myth.

I’ll happily admit that the science involved is beyond me, but I’ll also hazard a guess that it is beyond the authors too.  They are two people much smarter than me who visited a group of people even smarter than them.  I don’t think they were significantly better equipped than me to query what they were told and so I reckon they mostly just repeated what they were told, but putting it in a more narrative form.

That is not to say it is not interesting, but just that it doesn’t belong in this book: it would be better in a book by Nathan Myhrvold and his associates themselves, making their own case.  In any case, it involves theories and assertions that are going to cause a lot of friction with environmentalists, whether true or not.

For what it is worth, regardless of the soundness of the theories, there are reasons other than climate change to think about limiting certain types of energy use,  like direct health impacts of exhaust fumes or over-reliance of economies on diminishing and un-renewable energy sources.

The IV proposals smack of a Deus ex Machina solution to climate change, falling into the too-good-to-be-true category, but I would really like it if they are right.  It would offer some hope for the future, albeit with the danger of appearing to offer encouragement for habits which can be bad in themselves.

Anyway, that is an argument that is likely to rumble on for a long time. For now, here is what I said about the actual book:

While I found this book to be every bit as readable as Freakonomics, I didn’t find it nearly as satisfying.

In the first book it felt like Levitt was taking lots of data and results from other researchers and then making his own synthesis of them, usually finding some counter-intuitive conclusion out of it all. In large chunkc of this book it just felt like the other work was being re-hashed, especially in the increasingly notorious and attention-grabbing chapter on climate change.

Really it is just a description of theories coming out of Nathan Myhrvold’s labs.  While they might be interesting, and I am in no way qualified to say whether they are plausible or not, this whole chapter was a piece of straightforward journalism which could have been done by Dubner on his own – and maybe it was.  The only sort of economic twist to it was the tacking-on of the idea of externalities.

I know that chapter is the one that will attract most headlines and controversy, but it was more about physical science than economics and any ‘freakiness’ was in the original work rather than being applied by Levitt & Dubner.

The other headline-courting chapter (the one about the economics of prostitution) is more in the spirit of the first book, and is fascinating in its way, although again there doesn’t appear to be as much processing of the information by Levitt.

The parts of the book touching on drunk driving (and walking), car safety and child seats is truer to the spirit of Freakonomics with some juggling of data and statistics to come up with unexpected consequences, and original research by the authors.

Before the end I was getting a suspicion that topics were chosen to be deliberately provocative and controversial with conclusions guaranteed to get the maximum shock value: prostitutes are better off with pimps, child safety seats don’t save lives, and climate change can be fixed without the need to reduce polluting behaviour.

This is not a bad book, but it just doesn’t compare well to the first one. It is as if the authors were trying too hard with this one.  There is less emphasis on behaviour and incentives, but still something on nearly every page to make you realise how you shouldn’t just take everything at face value, and some fascinating material about knowledge management in hospitals – really: it is more interesting than it sounds.

In conclusion, a thought-provoking read, but fans of the original Freakonomics should be prepared to be underwhelmed.

Looking back, that all sounds very negative, but really there are some of the wacky conclusions you want from this pair – the unexpected negative impact on education of greater freedom of opportunity for women for example.  Also some things you odd bits of information like how blowjobs have gone from being top of prostitutes’ tarriffs in the past to being an entry-level activity now, with some explanation of why that might be.

I’ll give it 3/5 but still recommend it.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Rob Glover

    I used to have a ‘litmus test’ for cranks, which was – is there a chapter in their book about the Moonlandings and if so what do they say. Nowadays my crank litmus test is ‘what canards to the authors repeat about climate change’.

    I haven’t read Superfreakonomics, but if the authors repeat any of the following tired, incorrect and long-debunked arguments then they are simply bulshitting. Not lying as such, just uncaring about whether anything they say is true or false.

    “CO2 used to be higher when the dinosaurs were around”?
    “It’s the sun”?
    “In the 70s scientists expected an ice age”?
    “the world’s been cooling since 1998”?
    Do they, at any point, call climate change a religion?

    Further, do any of their ‘fixes’ to climate change involve geo-engineering solutions such as harvesting CO2 out of the atmosphere (CDR) or Solar Radiation Management?

    I have a complete Geoengineering report – a proper scientific report written by 16 actual scientists with contributions from 89 others and 25 organisations and reviewed by a panel of another 7 – from the Royal Society on my hard drive. Do the authors reference this report? Do they reference page 75, where in the conclusions they say:

    “None of the methods evaluated in this study offer an immediate solution to the problem of climate change and it is unclear which, if any, may ever pass the test required for potential deployment, that is: be judged to be effective, affordable, sufficiently safe, timely and publicly acceptable.”

  • Skuds

    They not only refer to the report but even specify the copy on your hard drive! Amazing stuff… 😉

    None of the fixes you mention, just giant hoses pumping sulphur into the upper atmosphere and solar-powered boats crossing the oceans to kick up spray. Also tubes to carry warm surface water to the bottom of the ocean.

  • Rob Glover