27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2009
Much like Freakonomics, Superfreakonomics is an entertaining book that covers a wide variety of unrelated topics in a fun way. But in contrast with Freakonomics, it is less reliant on econometric analysis and more on anecdotal evidence. As a result, its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.
For example, their finding that it is safer to drive than walk while drunk depends on several assumptions that may not hold. One such assumption is that the level of inebriation is on average the same for both drunk walkers and drunk drivers whereas, as they point out themselves earlier in the section, most people believe it is safer to walk when drunk, indicating that those who walk while drunk are probably more inebriated than those who drive while drunk. But to put things in context, that was just a small example and is only a very minor part of the book.
Sadly, many critics and reviewers are basing their entire opinion of the book on the last chapter concerning global warming. Let me just point out that it is not true that they are claiming that global warming is not a problem. Yes, they do mention some old global cooling theories from the 70's. But put this in the context of this book - a random collection of fun facts - and you can see why such theories were mentioned.
But that misses the main point of the chapter. In fact, the purpose of the chapter is to find a way to cool the globe, but using geoengineering, as opposed to restricting emissions of Carbon Dioxide. They propose an idea sponsored by Intellectual Ventures, a company whose business is to accumulate patents in a wide range of fields. The plan basically entails the injection of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which would reflect sunlight and possibly cool the Earth. The authors propose this as a much cheaper and possibly effective solution for global warming.
You can see why environmentalists may be annoyed by this book: it gives their political opponents some ammunition in a critical time when they are trying to pass environmental regulation. It is thus critical, for them, to destroy the credibility of the book and its authors. Perhaps this is an understandable position, but the attacks on this chapter of the book are highly unwarranted in any other context given that it is merely proposing new ideas, and there's nothing wrong with that. For all we know, more research could prove that such schemes are effective.
Buy this book if you enjoy reading a collection of fun, often counter-intuitive, random "facts" about controversial issues. I would give it 5 stars for entertainment value, but I only gave it 4 stars out of 5 because the high level of econometric analysis that could be found in Freakonomics is virtually non-existent here, making the sequel sloppy and less rigorous.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2010
While I enjoyed reading this book, I found it wasn't as strong as Freakonomics. Some of the assumptions seemed less defensible than those in the original. At times it was thought provoking, but overall something of a let down. It is a very quick read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 2009
Much like the first book , Superfreakonomics engages the listener through a fascinating combination of research and story telling. The unabridged audio set is narrated by author Steven Levitt, who's voice is enjoyable. This book seems to be getting some flack from environmentalists for the way that it tackles solutions to the global warming problem. But like it or not, this book adds a lot to the discussion and reveals some very novel and counter-intuitive ways to solve this problem. Whether you agree or disagree with them, Levitt and Dubner make their topics fun and interesting.
on July 4, 2010
This book is not really about economics, and unlike its predecessor, Freakanomics, it is a really good read. What Superfreakonomics is about is the clever use of statistics. But who would buy a book entitled 'New discoveries based on the unconventional interpretation of statistics'.
One early example of the clever interpretation of statistics consists of the story of a nineteenth century Viennese physician who found that he could reduce greatly the maternal mortality rate in his hospital if he required doctors to wash their hands before they did a delivery, and this was decades before Louis Pasteur discovered bacteria.
Jumping right ahead to the 21st century, the authors reinterpret other statistics. They discover that children whose mothers fasted during pregnancy because of Ramadan are more likely to suffer from behavioural and learning disabilities. And that condoms are more likely to fail in India than elsewhere because Indian men apparently have small penises. (Has anyone ever tried studying whether the mothers of suicide bombers fasted during pregnancy?)
The chapter on climate change is the weakest. The authors start out well enough by demonstrating that statistics can be used to prove as well as disprove the occurrence of climate change, and they point out that in the past volcanic eruptions have caused cooling that could be interpreted as climate change. And this was written before the recent eruption of the Icelandic volcano. The authors are to be congratulated for pointing out the often forgotten obvious fact that it makes no sense to say that humans should not interfere with nature. This would mean letting diseases take their toll, and that's just for starters. So far so good. But they then forget their own sensible premise and appear to take global warming for granted as they launch into a description of various weird schemes for seeding the upper atmosphere so as to counteract that warming.
The book is refreshingly free of ideological bias. It strikes out at the prophets of global warming, but also criticizes big companies who sell expensive car seats that may not do much to protect children. When the authors tried to get testing labs to test standard child seats, these labs were so afraid of losing the business of the manufacturers that all except one of them refused to do the tests the authors requested. The authors also denounce for chemotherapy which it seems does little to extend anyone's life ' or so the authors say ' but makes millions in profits for large pharmaceutical firms.
The last chapter is the most fun. It describes an experiment whereby the two authors tried to teach a cage full of monkeys the basic principles of economics. It is laugh out loud hilarious and should help to lighten the load of those who are trying to teach the dismal science.
Three of the five chapters of this book are presented as questions:
How is a street prostitute like a department store Santa?
Why should suicide bombers buy life insurance?
What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?
The other two are:
The fix is in ... and it's cheap and simple
Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism.
These two chapter titles aren't quite so catchy, but there is some really good material buried within on topics such as the benefits of hand washing and the benison of fertiliser. Posing questions in the form of catchy chapter titles is one way to get people's attention, and much of the material presented is entertaining and thought-provoking. But what about the conclusions? Can it possibly be true that there is a cheap fix for climate change? But how do we (globally) measure `cheap', and who determines whether it is effective?
I found the various anecdotes interesting and generally entertaining. But I found myself wondering whether this book added materially to the ground already covered so successfully in `Freakonomics'. Clearly, for some readers, it does. I'm not convinced.
While I might somewhat agree with previous reviewers that "Superfreakonimics" has an amusing side that ponders the seemingly random world of numerical ideas, the book poses a more serious economic question as to how well any of us truly understand the practical possibilities of statistics. As the authors point out, we live in an environment that contains a wide assortment of opportunities that fall outside the conventional statistics collected by economists for big government and industry. To illustrate this point, the authors examine a number of anecdotal situations that deal with extraordinary human situations involving consumption and production of scarce goods. Prostitution, life insurance, terrorism, seat belts safety, and global warming are just some of the everyday economies that come up for consideration here. Levitt and Dubner remind us that statistical analysis as it involves economic activity is an intellectual pursuit that raises more questions than it provides answers. Playing with numbers to find answers to life's more perplexing needs like staying healthy, prospering or surviving is an exercise fraught with all kinds of frustrations and shortfalls. There is that tendency for many of us not to want to look at the greater realm of statistical options because it is too difficult to fathom, so we apathetically opt for what others tell us is the appropriate answer. The chapter on global warming is especially mind-stretching. With a global effort now being mounted to fight climate warming, we might want to consider that economically and ecologically we might be doing more harm than good by tampering with Mother Nature. For all the statistics that support an economic model for reducing greenhouse gases, there are reputable data that could effectively refute the claim and offer better alternatives. As this book points out, numbers do have a tendency to be accurate as long as they are used to address the real problem at hand and give us choices on which to act. Our problem is that most of us are not given to looking at economics as anything but theory best left in the hands of academics to pore over. Great little read that serves to remind us that the field of economics can work for the common man regardless of its many blindspots.
This book is essentially a continuation of the same general theme as the earlier one – Freakonomics. However, this one includes color illustrations near the center of the book; I found these to be quite interesting and useful in illustrating certain sections of the main text. This book occasionally makes reference to some material covered in Freakonomics, so a reader may wish to read these two books in the order in which they were published. The only down side for me in this particular book was reading the “Transcript from the First Freakonomics Radio Podcast”, which is a small fourteen-page section near the end of the book. Although this may have been great to listen to on the radio, reading through it, for me, was rather boring; it can easily be skipped (as I should have done) with no loss in the book’s useful/interesting content.
I believe that anyone who enjoyed Freakonomics will likely enjoy this book at least just as much. I certainly did.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
"But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?'" -- Acts 7:27
One of the earliest lessons of microeconomics has been credited to Pareto, based on his observation that 20 percent of the people have 80 percent of the wealth. Since then, we've learned that many other things are distributed in similarly lopsided fashion. If we focus on where there is little opportunity, we get little done. If we focus instead where there is great opportunity, the results may well be virtually unlimited. SuperFreakonomics, like Freakonomics before it, uses Pareto's perspective in a variety of areas where you probably don't normally think that unusual solutions at low cost might hold. The results can be enlightening and amusing, at the same time.
Here's a brief summary of the book:
Chapter 1: Economic inequality of women as exemplified by salary information with a lot of documentation of price elasticity and inelasticity in sex-worker employment.
Chapter 2: Using unusual patterns to locate terrorist intent on suicidal attacks. A shortened life expectation shifts behavior in ways that can be observed.
Chapter 3: People respond to incentives rather than to altruism. Measurements are challenged by newer measurements that take more factors into account.
Chapter 4: Seemingly possible inexpensive ways to solve difficult problems. Filled with more amusing speculation than substance.
Chapter 5: Curtailing carbon dioxide emissions won't cure global warming. The authors look at speculative ideas for changing the heat-trapping qualities of the atmosphere and oceans.
Epilogue: Monkeys can be trained to act like people with money.
If that mix of material seems a little random, the underlying theme is that microeconomic analysis can bring new insights, even where you wouldn't expect it to. Methinks the authors doth protest a little too much.
I could have done with a lot less information about prostitution. I don't really need to understand price elasticity in that area. This material felt a little like pandering to sell more books.
I enjoyed the terrorist chapter. If the book had been more like that, it would have been a lot more interesting.
The studies of motives seemed better suited to a book on social science research than to a popular book.
In the inexpensive solutions, I thought that the authors were reaching to be entertaining more than they were trying to inform.
In the global warming section, the points about carbon dioxide compared to water vapor and methane are accurate and well presented. But the authors went off the deep end in pursuing alternatives. These suggestions are more in the realm of speculation than proven alternatives.
Will the book harm you? Probably not.
Will the book give you a great big insight that will reward you for reading it? Maybe not.
Will the book give you lots to talk with other people? Sure.
I hope the authors will attempt to be more solution oriented in future books and less driven by a desire to be "entertaining."
on November 28, 2009
Let me start by saying that I quite liked Freakonomics. Having said that this book struck me as a cash grab based on the previous books success. Many of the stories in Freakonmics were interesting and came from a different frame from your average business book. SuperFreakonomics seems like they got the leftovers that didn't make it into the original book and also has some re-treads that have recently been better addressed in books by Malcolm Gladwell and others. Save yourself some money.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2009
These authors are doing what economic thinkers do best: relaxing the constraints of everyday politics and morality and allowing the laws of economics to roam freely. When the constraints of politics and morality are relaxed, a whole new world of thought and perception opens up that goes well beyond the conventional wisdom and thinking, and well beyond much of the old and ossified thinking on many of our common everyday problems. Allowing free reign of their thinking to apply to everyday problems, is what this book is all about.
The author's claim (rather convincingly in my view) that the old ossified thinking about global warming, as sexy as it is to support such thinking, makes little sense when viewed purely in terms of economics. At the very least the old carbon mitigation arguments are deficient, if not entirely flawed. This is not to say that they should be scraped, but only to say that alternative solution needs to be explored, and rather urgently.
The crux of their argument put forth in the last chapter of the book (also surely to be the most controversial one) is that the much touted carbon mitigation approaches won't work because they are too little, too late and much too expensive even if it they were to prove plausible. The authors imply that we have already passed the point of no return when it comes to the efficacy of carbon mitigation techniques.
Why then has no one noticed this and pointed it out to the international community? How is it that we have been wedded to an alternative that cannot work, and which, even if it could, would be too expensive to pay for?
Were we not all following the herd instinct of the conventional wisdom, the debate on this issue would long ago have been opened up to a wider set of perhaps more interesting, and possibly, better alternative ideas. And in this regard, the authors allow their imagination to reign freely. They throw out several 'trial ideas' in the area of geo-engineering that, while at this point must remain in the tentative thinking stage, were they to prove viable, would at least have the potential to mitigate the problem of global warming within reasonable economic bounds. So far, something carbon mitigation approaches cannot do. In fact, reading between the lines, these authors suggest that the carbon mitigation approaches even fail the laugh test when it comes to either the possibility of achieving the goals designed for them, or the goal of being economically reasonable or viable.
But more importantly, these authors larger message is philosophical. It to point out that viewing this (and other) problems from a purely economic vantage point, even if in only a theoretical sense, rather than from a purely moral and political point of view, forces us to redefine what our goals and preferences are and how we are to go about achieving them within clear (but always existing) economic constraints. They thus try to change the way we think about the difference between 'evaluating political and moral scenarios' and 'embracing the moral and political preferences and implications or the outcomes that such scenarios might suggest. It is okay to study or 'play out' various scenarios in theory, of which our own preferences may not be a part. That is what economists do everyday, and must be allowed to do even when the constraints of politics and morality seem overwhelming and stifling, and even when our own preference sets are not a part of the analysis.
Their study of prostitution in America's black inner city ghettos serves as a case in point. For some women, making 2-3 thousand dollars per night for a few months in order to finance their way through an expensive college or graduate school is a rational way to achieve this goal. Simply because it does not fit our own moral preference set, does not mean that the economics of prostitution should not be studied, or that it does not make perfectly good sense to someone with a difference morality and set of preferences than our own.
In short, this book is 'out of the box thinking' at its level best. It is the kind of thinking that we Americans used to be the recognize global leaders in. However, these authors seem to be suggesting that we are losing this edge by too easily giving over to our socially adjusted moral and ideological gods, who give us a warm fuzzy feeling but whose solutions often prove to be economic dead-ends, or worse. It is a timely and sobering message that is strong on economic philosophy but weak on analysis. Still it is worth three stars for bravery and good imagination.