When Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner published Freaknomics several years ago, they gained a bit of mainstream fame as popular science writers (think Malcolm Gladwell). They also stirred up controversy with their assertion that abortion lowers the crime rate, which also raised a ruckus for poor Bill Bennett, who didn’t deserve it for once.
For better or worse, Levitt and Dubner have drummed up a sequel, dubbed—faster, better, stronger—SuperFreakonomics, a title that is preposterous and sensationalist, but which the authors readily admit.
Though experience has taught us to ignore most prefaces, the one included in this tome is important, because it seeks to partially address some of the concerns and legacy of the first book. It begins with some witty banter about how the first book’s title came to be, and then delves into the question of the book’s overriding theme—which, apparently, was a pressing concern to many readers, though I can’t for the life of me think of why. Levitt and Dubner’s answer is that [Super]Freaknomics is about how people respond to incentives, which is both an accurate and silly answer, since that’s what all economics is. What Freaknomics started and SuperFreakonomics continued is to apply the merciless (there’s a reason economics is called the “dismal science”), statistical analysis of economics to situations that wouldn’t normally get it.
Prostitution for instance. In one of the better chapters, Levitt and Dubner tackle the economy of prostitution, namely how the market has changed in the last half-century (premarital sex’s stigma faded and it became a viable alternative to prostitution), and why, financially, it’s better to have a pimp than to work solo. And, since the authors feel the need to live dangerously, you will also learn what percentage of sex-for-sale in Chicago involves anal sex1. You can see why the authors cop to the title: economics is amoral, and allows us to view things outside our own biases of moral outrage or attachment, such as (sort of) encouraging the use of pimps.
At their best, Levitt and Dubner are engaging and interesting, if somewhat facile. At their worst, however, they represent a trend of contrarian writing that’s lazy and disingenuous. I talked about it briefly in my review of Freakonomics, and I’m dismayed but not surprised to see them still exhibiting the behavior. First, take either a common perception or a scientific consensus, such as global warming2. Then find one smart-sounding person who disagrees or qualifies that consensus in a way which undermines it. Present that person’s theory as fact, and pretend as those you’ve just put the freak in freakonomics.
This tactic is particularly obvious in the now-infamous chapter on global warming, which is this sequel’s version of aborted black babies, I suppose. Excepting that the chapter is full of errors and egregious misrepresentations3, anyway. After briefly summarizing and acknowledging the climate problem, the authors introduce a couple of characters, specifically Nathan Myhrvold and Ken Caldeira, whose views they represent as having that same contrarian character. Because Myhrvold is, like, really smart, we swear, his contrariness as the head of a brain trust and patent firm4 is now placed on a pedestal of equal height to that of the 98% of the scientific community which asserts otherwise. It’s a cheap trick, used all too often in situations like these.
All of this is, of course, assuming that the authors got their facts right in the first place. It would appear that they missed Caldeira’s actual views by a wide margin, for instance. What’s more, few of the topics that the authors cover have to do with traditional economics, usually branching out into other areas in which Levitt (an economist) and Dubner (a journalist) have no real knowledge, and must therefore rely entirely on the authority of their sources—whom, as we’ve seen, are not necessarily good or correct. It’s a problem: assuming good input, Levitt and Dubner could churn out some interesting economics, if still less entertaining than Tim Harford. Dubner’s penchant for writing smarmy things like “Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception” cues an endless succession of facepalms from his hapless readers, who I expect are all better aware what things make you sound like a complete asshole.
For every instance where SuperFreakonomics seems to shine, it has another three where it devolves into these ridiculous plays from authority, or odd nonsequiturs that are supposed to be edgy but are really just distracting and uneven. The reality is that the publisher’s perfect pairing of a journalist and an economist doesn’t make for nearly as accurate or interesting a product as we’d all like to think it would…. unless you’re a shallow James Frey fan and don’t mind a little inaccuracy, dishonesty/disingenuity, and bad writing.
If you want better pop econ, read Tim Harford and ignore the hype about SuperFreakonomics or, for that matter, its predecessor. You’ll be better served by a more grounded treatment of the subject.
- About 9%.[↩]
- And there is broad consensus; even Levitt and Dubner admit it[↩]
- For what it’s worth, Dubner responded to some of these criticisms, to no great effect.[↩]
- Intellectual Ventures patents pretty much anything and everything. They are patent trolls, which Levitt and Dubner put in scares quotes as though the whole idea is ridiculous. Damn economists.[↩]