Superfreakonomics, the book you can't take home to mother

Their book Freakonomics (The Hidden Side of Everything) sold more than 4 million copies, and now Stephen J. Dubner, an author and journalist in New York City, and Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, are back with more in SuperFreakonomics, which was published Tuesday.

They continue to look for the weird but illuminating comparisons and contrasts and to find hidden threads that have deeper meaning, this time on topics ranging from why prostitutes' pricing has fallen in recent decades to why doctors aren't washing their hands often enough. Of course, there is a controversial chapter on global warming. Here we publish some excerpts from the book as well as answers from Dubner to questions posed by e-mail from Perspective editor Jim Verhulst.

Q&A | With the authors

Why did you take another run at Freakonomics? What was your point in writing a second book?

Even before our first book was published, back in 2005, we realized we really enjoyed working together, despite our initial skepticism. At that time, we were heavily into pursuing a health care analysis — which, alas, shows up only in bits and pieces in SuperFreakonomics — and found that our hybrid of economic analysis and nonfiction narrative writing was a lot of fun for us and, we hoped, enlightening for readers. We really wanted to take our time with the second book, to make sure it was better than the first — more substantial both in content and in structure.

Out of all the themes you could choose to apply your counterintuitive touch, how did you settle on ones such as driving drunk versus walking drunk and, of course, climate change? Do you come across them in research, do people suggest them to you or what?

Every story in the book — there are probably 100 separate ones, depending how you count — came about in its own way. Yes, some were suggested by readers. Others were long-standing topics of interest in Levitt's research (crime, for instance, and terrorism). And others, like global warming, came about because we think it's valuable to look at large problems from a new angle and use data (rather than emotions or politics or what-have-you) to find solutions.

As the agents of counterintuitive analysis, did anything surprise even you two in researching and writing this book?

I was most surprised — and, frankly, saddened — by the relative lack of efficacy of many types of chemotherapy. We all know it is very expensive and often brutal to the patient but, beyond that, chemotherapy works much less well than any of us would hope. As someone who (like probably everyone reading this) has lost several relatives and friends to cancer, I deeply hope that the next generation of treatments (or, better, preventions) aren't too far off.

I'm presuming your analysis is designed to be descriptive, not prescriptive? In other words, while you note that walking drunk appears more likely to end in one's death than driving drunk, you are simply citing a statistic, not advocating a choice. You don't really want drunk people to choose driving over walking?

Definitely not, and we work hard throughout the book to make that type of point clear. Our view is simple: Everyone wants to change or fix the world in some way. It's just that, before rushing off to do so, it helps to know what's actually going on in the world rather than basing your actions on a hunch or a fear or a rumor.

You've gotten a lot of pushback on the chapter on global warming — "What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?" — from everyone from the Nobel-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Give us a little background, tell us what you've experienced during this bit of buffeting and what you've learned about writing puckishly on a controversial topic. (Note to readers: You can follow much of the back and forth at freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com.)

If nothing else, we learned that when we write in Super-Freakonomics that "the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion," we were if anything understating the level of orthodoxy. What we've done is taken a fact-based economic approach to the problem of global warming. What we failed to do (miserably) is support the entrenched political and financial agendas of the global-warming activist community.

A follow-up: What are your own views on global warming and what do you want your readers to take away from that chapter?

Our essential argument is this: If global warming is a big enough problem to worry about, and we think it is, then the current proposed solutions (primarily carbon mitigation) will be too little and too late to solve the warming problem. That is a fundamentally different argument than the carbon activists make. I don't blame them for attacking us: They have a lot at stake. What I'd like readers to walk away with is a better understanding of the scientific complexities of global warming as well as the economic realities — and, most of all, to understand how it would be a good idea to get a seat at the table for some other proposed solutions, including geoengineering.

Another follow-up: You two have your own popular Freakonomics blog. Given that much of the controversy over your chapter on global warming has played out in blogs so far, what does that say about the nature of political and scientific discourse today, as well as the point of publishing a book?

When you read (or write for) blogs, you get the sense that they're central to public discourse. Then, you go out in the real world and realize what a narrow audience they speak to. Passionate, yes, but narrow. Part of that passion manifests itself in righteous indignation, silly claims of inaccuracy, and of course name-calling. (If Ardi was a blogger, I'm sure he would have done the same; the medium encourages it.) I think the activists who've been shouting at us have quieted down in part because they realize they've made people more interested in reading the book. I know what our publishers are thinking: With enemies like those, who needs friends?

One of your points is that people extrapolate from their experience and perceptions to a reality that isn't necessarily true. For example, you show that across the world, elephants kill more people than do sharks. Yet we irrationally fear death by shark. Okay. But here in the Tampa Bay area, we've had both. An elephant killed her trainer at a Tampa zoo back in the early '90s, and in 2000, a shark killed a swimmer right here in Tampa Bay waters. In fact, Florida is home to a substantial percentage of the shark attacks in the world each year. So when you note that there have recently been an average of only 5.9 fatalities a year from shark attacks worldwide, are we really supposed to feel better down here in Florida? Is there some counterintuitive, freakonomical point we're missing?

Of course there are geographical differences for all kinds of risk factors (as well as occupational and age- and income- and gender-related difference as well). But the fact is that when the media overreports an anomalous event, it gives people a warped sense of danger. Shark attacks are just one example of many; another serious one is child abduction.

Are there topics that are too "serious" for the kind of treatment you Freakonomists give them — or is your analysis of them exactly the point?

You mean more serious than chemotherapy, global warming, and terrorism? If you think of some, please let us know.

Who do you hope will read this book? What do you hope people will take away from reading SuperFreakonomics?

I hope the book is read especially by people who are pessimists about the world; I think it might cheer them up a bit. We write at some length about how often there are seemingly unsolvable problems — whether famine, polio or a high rate of auto fatalities — that are ultimately solved by cheap and simple fixes. As we write in the book: "It is a fact of life that people love to complain, particularly about how terrible the modern world is compared with the past. They are nearly always wrong."

Is SuperFreakonomics in any way an homage to Rick James? Is this the book you can't take home to mother?

The title may show bad taste — on any number of levels — but we just couldn't help ourselves. As for Mom: If she's easily offended, you might ask her to skip Chapter 1.

Excerpt | Monkey prostitution (page 215)

Microeconomist Keith Chen taught capuchin monkeys to use money, to use coins to buy food, and when he changed the relative cost of various foods — Jell-O cubes, apple slices — they made good decisions based on price. But then something happened ...

(O)ut of the corner of his eye, Chen saw something remarkable. One monkey, rather than handing his coin over to the humans for a grape or a slice of apple, instead approached a second monkey and gave it to her. Chen had done earlier research in which monkeys were found to be altruistic. Had he just witnessed an unprompted act of monkey altruism?

After a few seconds of grooming — bam! — the two capuchins were having sex. What Chen had seen wasn't altruism at all, but rather the first instance of monkey prostitution in the recorded history of science.

And then, just to prove how thoroughly the monkeys had assimilated the concept of money, as soon as the sex was over — it lasted about eight seconds; they're monkeys, after all — the capuchin who'd received the coin promptly brought it over to Chen to purchase some grapes.

This episode sent Chen's mind spinning. Until now, the researchers had run narrowly defined money experiments with one monkey at a time. What if Chen could introduce money directly into the monkeys' lives? The research possibilities were endless.

Alas, Chen's dream of capuchin capitalism never came to pass. The authorities who oversaw the monkey lab feared that introducing money to the capuchins would irreparably damage their social structure. They were probably right.

• • •

Excerpt | Changing externalities (page 207)

Why was it so hard to change (doctors') behavior when the price of compliance (a simple hand-wash) is so low and the potential cost of failure (the loss of a human life) so high?

Once again, as with pollution, the answer has to do with externalities.

When a doctor fails to wash his hands, his own life isn't the one that is primarily endangered. It is the next patient he treats, the one with the open wound or the compromised immune system. The dangerous bacteria that patient receives are a negative externality of the doctor's actions — just as pollution is a negative externality of anyone who drives a car, jacks up the air conditioner, or sends coal exhaust up a smokestack. The polluter has insufficient incentive to not pollute, and the doctor has insufficient incentive to wash his hands.

This is what makes the science of behavior change so difficult.

So instead of collectively wringing our filthy hands about behavior that is so hard to change, what if we can come up with engineering or design or incentive solutions that supersede the need for such change?

Superfreakonomics, the book you can't take home to mother 10/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 10:37am]

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