Feature

Book of the week: Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

<em>Freakonomics</em> authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner are back with another "beautifully contrarian" collection of data-driven arguments.

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
(Morrow, 270 pages, $29.99)

Economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner know how to start an argument, said Kyle Smith in the New York Post. Their first book, Freakonomics, touched off countless water-cooler debates over legalized abortion’s effect on crime rates and the wisdom of backyard swimming pools. Now they’re back with another “brave, bracing, and beautifully contrarian” collection of data-driven arguments. Superfreakonomics is “Dan Brown for smart people: secret webs of knowledge hidden in plain sight, reviled underdogs digging up the truth.” No one who reads it will think the same way again about car seats, “drunk walking,” prostitutes’ prices, or even global warming.

“Too often,” though, “the book provokes by just getting things wrong,” said Brad Johnson in the Guardian.co.uk. “Shoddy statistical work” underlies the authors’ claim that it’s safer to drive a mile drunk than to walk a mile drunk, and they bungle the economics of prostitution while pointing out supposed similarities between high-priced prostitutes and trophy wives. Most questionable is their chapter suggesting global warming could be easily counteracted; one climate scientist interviewed for it has made clear he disagrees. Levitt and Dubner have claimed they merely wanted to frame the issue in an unexpected way, said Paul Krugman in TheNewYorkTimes.com. That’s their shtick, of course, but here we’re not talking about one of their usual flights of fancy. “We’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization.”

The authors’ broader point is that big problems can be solved by simple strategies, said Jennifer Wells in The Toronto Star. When they learn that children older than 2 are no safer traveling in a car seat than when wearing a seat belt, they ­conclude that it would be smarter to improve seat-belt technology rather than the clumsy car seat. Since they doubt people can ever be convinced to reduce energy use, they suggest cooling the planet by pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere via an enormous hose at the North Pole. Admittedly, that idea’s a bit outlandish, said Tim Harford in the Financial Times. Their climate discussion clearly “needed more balance.” But it makes interesting reading. A book like Superfreakonomics “stands or falls on its entertainment value.”

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