Levitt and Dubner are crunching numbers again with SuperFreakonomics.

One day back in 2005 while reading This Week magazine I came across a short, bold and fascinating article about a young Indian-born sociologist who after taking the time to extensively interview and practically live with a group of young drug dealers in one of Chicago’s crime-ridden public housing projects, eventually came to the conclusion that despite the daily risks and large amounts of money that change hands on a constant basis, most if not all young men employed in the illegal drug trade earn relatively next to nothing. Unless one happens to be one of the few top dogs pulling the strings, the actual foot warriors in this illegal business do so poorly from a financial standpoint the majority of them live at home with their moms and younger siblings with some working at their neighborhood MacDonald’s just to make ends meet. In just a few pages the article smashed my stereotypes of the typical drug dealer as a high-rolling, wealthy and glamorous man about town. After finishing the rather shocking article I learned it was an exert from a book called Freakonomics. A year or two after I read the article I found a copy of the book in question at my local public library. Consequently I eagerly devoured it, intrigued by its unorthodox and almost shocking views on crime, drug dealing, racial inequality and other hot button topics.

Not long ago I learned that after a five-year hiatus authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, have finally produced a sequel. Named SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance their book, as described by the two authors is roughly a collection of “things you always knew to be true but didn’t and things you never knew you wanted to know but do.” Once again, SuperFreakonomics, just like its predecessor is a collection of daring and assumption-shattering explanations of a few of modern life’s baffling little conundrums. One day, I decided to order a copy through Quality Paperback Club. After letting it sit on my shelf for a few months I decided to read it. After finishing it a few weeks ago, I’m glad I did. With the exception of their chapter in which they discuss with considerable skepticism the perils of global warming, overall I thought Levitt and Dubner’s SuperFreakonomics much like their earlier Freakonomics is a bold, radical but thought-provoking and entertaining book.

I think my favorite chapter was the one devoted to their investigation into the world’s oldest profession, known as prostitution. Because of today’s climate of sexual freedom when compared to that of yesteryear, modern-day prostitutes actually make less money when adjusted for inflation when compared to prostitutes from, say the turn of the century. In America anyway, (and not counting Nevada), the urban brothels of years past have been replaced by lone street-walkers, usually associated with pimps. All the while a shadowy sex industry exists in parallel, a world of expensive “escorts” specializing in wealthy middle-aged clients. Called by some as “trophy wives for rent” and discretely contacted through Internet sites, according to the book’s authors many of these women make astounding amounts of money. One woman in fact, after finally confining in a female friend that secretly she was an escort, her friend after learning just how much money she made actually joined her in the business !

Other parts I found interesting as well. Who would think that statistically speaking, based on distance traveled, it’s more dangerous to walk home drunk than to drive home drunk ? Who would also think that child car seats are no more effective than seat belts or chemotherapy in some cases really doesn’t help that much ? Teachers, for good reason will probably scream bloody murder after reading that Levitt and Dubner blame the (perceived) demise of public education on the expanded opportunities available for intelligent and ambitious women to work in fields other than teaching.

But it’s one of book’s last chapters in which they discuss global warming that the two authors come up a bit short. In being considerably dismissive of the phenomena of human-driven climate change they ignore a huge body of established and peer-reviewed scientific evidence that clearly points otherwise. The two authors also spend no small amount of time discussing a few quirky and odd solutions to combat a problem which only a few pages earlier they skeptically and perhaps cynically dismissed. By the way, for a good counterpoint to their arguments, check out this partisan but intelligent piece from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

While I enjoyed this book and its authors sound sincere and not mean-spirited with their arguments and number crunching, I don’t know why but when it comes to the complex and wide-ranging debates like these, somehow I think the numbers are only part of the equation. I’m also reminded of the wise counsel of Michael Shermer to be skeptical whenever even the most brilliant and well-meaning of people venture outside their chosen fields of expertise to make pronouncements. Therefore, when it comes to SuperFreakonomics I am enlightened and entertained, but at the same time I remain a bit skeptical.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Levitt and Dubner are crunching numbers again with SuperFreakonomics.

  1. Hmmm yes the way they seem to handle climate change makes me rather skeptical of everything else they say as well unfortunately, I have to admit! Sounds interesting, but I’m not sold that numbers are the only piece of the puzzle, as you point out there are other factors always at play.

  2. JoV

    I’m with you on this! I read Freakonomics and just think the numbers are there to justify the duo’s cause but it all provides for an entertaining read. I’ll read everything in this with a pinch of salt anyway.

    Glad to have you back and with 3 reviews in a row! Where have you been? 🙂

    • Thanks Jo ! Sorry for the “mini-hiatus”. I’ve been either too busy….or too lazy ! Hopefully I can whip out a few more posts in the next week or so.
      I’ll try to be a bit more productive !!
      Thanks for missing me !! It’s always good to be missed !!

  3. Pingback: Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner | Maphead's Book Blog

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