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on October 21, 2009
I thought Freakonomics was a great book because it presented arguments which were counter-intuitive in nature, but made sense when considered in a new light. As the title suggests, the authors tried to take this same tactic to the extreme in Superfreakonomics. Unfortunately they went overboard, and in trying to be counter-intuitive the authors just threw facts and logic by the wayside.

In one chapter they basically encourage drunk driving by suggesting it's safer than drunken walking. In arriving at this conclusion the authors make some assumptions which are completely unwarranted. They might as well have argued "if you assume leprechauns are real, then there's probably a pot of gold at the end of each rainbow". Their assumptions were literally that bad, and in the process they're engaging in the immoral act of trying to convince people that drunk driving is relatively safe. I think it's rather despicable.

Even worse is the climate change chapter, which has at least one false or misleading statement on virtually every page. They claim solar panels actually contribute to global warming, which is factually totally wrong. They claim scientists were predicting global cooling in the '70s, which is factually wrong. They completely misrepresent the opinions of the few scientists they actually interviewed. They mostly rely on the opinions of a guy who used to be a big player at Microsoft, who is far from a climate science expert - and they even misrepresent his opinions! Basically they try to argue that we should emit as much carbon dioxide as we want, and we can fix the problem by just pumping a bunch of sulfur into the atmosphere to offset the warming effects. It's just plain stupid, and by far the worst argument made in either of their books.

It's incredibly disappointing that they followed up such a terrific book with such a poorly researched and argued sequel. The difference is in Freakonomics, the authors relied on their own research, performed over many years. In Superfreakonomics they relied on other peoples' research, and totally misunderstood and/or misrepresented it.

I don't recommend buying the book. It's a total letdown and big waste of money. If you want to be misinformed on climate change, just go read some internet blogs.
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on October 21, 2009
I gave a positive review to the first Freakonomics. That book distilled some 10 years of academic research by Mr. Levitt, and it was already stretched a bit thin. Levitt does not have another 10 years of research to convert into a second book, so instead we get a collection of magazine articles with cutesy "counterintuitive" angles to them. I know a popular book like this can't be expected to be completely rigorous, but what I've learned about Levitt since the first book has left me less willing to take him at face value. For example his famous study of the link between abortion and crime was later shown to suffer from a programming error in which he neglected to properly normalize a series of crime statistics. When the error was corrected, the trumpeted correlation went away. Levitt responded by re-jiggering his assumptions in a complicated way so he could keep his original conclusions intact. He certainly doesn't make his readers aware of how much subjectivity is in his analysis, and he gives short shrift to legitimate alternate interpretations. Without the penumbra of credibility Levitt enjoyed from his work in econometrics, he's just another moderately amusing magazine writer who shouldn't be taken too seriously.
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on July 2, 2010
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.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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HALL OF FAMEon October 20, 2009
"People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable" is the unifying theme claimed by Levitt and Dubner's latest book. They go on to state that their reports rely on accumulated data rather than individual anecdotes, opinions, and anomalies.

Levitt and Dubner's first exposition concludes that walking drunk leads to 5X deaths/mile as driving drunk. Validity, however, requires both walking and driving drunks be equally intoxicated. My experience with ambulatory inner-city 'down and outs' is that they are probably far more intoxicated than the average drunk driver - an important distinction. Then its on to concluding that rural Indian families with cable TV had lower birthrates and were more likely to keep their daughters in school, and reporting that Indian penises are generally too small for standard condoms (why do we need to know this?). As for agents, prostitutes using an agent (pimp) earn more and are beaten up less, while home-sellers using an agent (realtor) get little or no monetary value - though their homes did sell about three weeks faster. Their rhetorical question: "Why is a street prostitute like a department store Santa?" "They both take advantage of short-term job opportunities brought about by holiday spikes in demand." Milking their salacious topic one more time, readers also learn that the demand for prostitutes is far lower now than 60 years ago - in large part because of the feminist revolution and 'giving it away for free.'

The book then turns briefly to education, covered in their original "Freakonomics" through detailing teacher-led cheating on pupil standardized tests. This time the authors sort of make amends for any prior slight to teachers by attributing a decline in female teachers' IQ (in 1960, about 40% scored in the top quintile, with only 8% in the bottom; in 1980 less than half as many scored in the top grouping, and over twice as many in the bottom) to increased opportunities for women in business, law, etc. (The authors' point is that teachers should be paid more.) Meanwhile, U.S. test scores reportedly fell by about 1.25 grade-equivalents. (I have followed pupil test results for three decades, and have never heard such an allegation before. Prior reports have always been 'improvement at the lower grades, stagnation or slight decline at the 12th grade.')

Ramadan calls for a daytime fast from food and drink for its entire month - certainly not conducive to productivity for those doing outside manual labor. Worse yet, babies in utero during that period are more likely to exhibit developmental aftereffects, with the strongest effects occurring when fasting coincides with the first month of pregnancy and when mother lives where summer daylight hours are longer. If you want to be a major league ballplayer, having a father who did so increases a son's chance of following this path by 800X.

Cancer patients make up 20% of Medicare cases, and consume 40% of its drug budget. Chemotherapy, per "Super Freakonomics" is remarkably ineffective for many cancers, especially lung cancer. Patients often discontinue treatment due to severe adverse effects. (Maybe those 'death panels,' once renamed, aren't such a bad idea.)

The September 11, 2001 tragedy was funded for little more than $300,000. Preventing a repeat is an obvious priority for many nations. Levitt and Dubner report that a British bank fraud expert has found that (university) students with first and last names of Muslim origin, making an initial deposit of about $4,000 followed by small withdrawals, not conducting transactions on Friday (mandatory prayer), renting, having a mobile phone, and not having life insurance are much more likely than others to be a terrorist - and suggest such an individual would reduce his odds of being detected by eg. buying life insurance. (I'm amazed at the 'benefits' of a free press to terrorists. First bin Laden learns to stop using his cell phone, now front-line terrorists learn to buy life insurance, make withdrawals on Friday, etc.)

The chapter titled "Unbelievable Stories About Apathy and Altruism" begins with a recounting of the notorious Kitty Genovese murder in Queens, NYC during 1964 - thirty-eight eyewitnesses supposedly did nothing to help. Later investigation, also covered in the book, sharply reduced the number of supposed witnesses, and suggests slow police response may have been part of the delay. What any of this has to do with economics, though, escapes me. Moving on, "Super Freakonomics" recounts how childbirth death rates one hundred years ago were 50X those today, and how a concerned Dr. Semmelweis at one hospital linked the deaths to doctors failing to wash their hands after autopsies, ordered correction, and thereby saved hundreds of lives in just the next 12 months at that hospital. (Unfortunately, Dr. Semmelweis' insight was not immediately adopted worldwide, and thousands more lives were unnecessarily lost as an unintended consequence of doctors trying to improve through performing autopsies.) The 'good news' is that Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles recently boosted hand-washing rates to nearly 100% after culturing the germs on its doctors hands and displaying the result on hospital screen-savers. Again - an interesting but fairly well known story, with dubious connection to economics. The authors, however, do present a very good explanation of why many/most economic experiment participants are likely to bias their responses and the researchers' conclusions.

On to global warming, reporting that methane is 25X as potent a global warming gas as CO2 and that some experts contend most global warming may be the result of unintended consequences of good environmental stewardship - reducing air pollution that formerly reflected sunlight. Further, proposed efforts to limit CO2 would have too little impact, and be too slow to take effect. The authors support Nathan Myhrvold's (former Microsoft's Chief Technology Officer) and associates' proposal to disperse about 34 gallons/minute of sulfur dioxide into the troposphere 18 miles up through each of possibly several light-weight pipes suspended by balloons. Upward flow would be facilitated by lightweight suspended motors, and in a worst-case scenario, cost $150 million to start up and $100 million/year to operate. (Jet stream winds of up to 240 mph, airline objections, and temperatures of -60 degree F. notwithstanding.) The authors also suggest eating kangaroos (they do not produce methane) instead of cows would be a major help in reducing methane. Perhaps these are all valid recommendations. However, the stakes are enormous, and the possibilities of failure or unexpected consequences must also be taken into account.

Next, pages of hair-splitting rumination on seat belts vs. car seats for those aged 2 - 6 - no need to read, just keep the car seats, trust me. Finally, the book concludes with a brief summary of experiments with capuchin monkeys and coins serving as money. One result was the first witnessed case of monkey prostitution! (Again, why are the authors so interested in prostitution and sex?)

Bottom Line: "Super Freakonomics" is an easy read, though not an in-depth analysis and does not represent unassailable or even always useful conclusions. Much of the material is tenuously related to economics, at best. Finally, while the authors may be qualified to discuss and make micro-economic recommendations, I'd look elsewhere for important science advice.
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on March 26, 2010
Economics may not be considered one of the sexier sciences. But, first with "Freakonomics" and now with "Super Freakonomics", rogue economists and best-selling authors, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, have proven that economics can be fascinating, funny and out-of-the-blue surprising as well!

No cow is so sacred as to escape the scrutiny of Levitt and Dubner's micro- and macro-scopic analysis. For example, would any of us have thought to question the value of infant car seats in preventing child injury or deaths in car accidents? I certainly wouldn't have but Levitt and Dubner show that children's car seats are no more effective than regular seat belts at preventing injury. How many millions (or billions) of dollars are swirling into a voracious black hole in pursuit of this particular sacred cow?

I expect their tongues were planted firmly in their cheeks when they examined the economics of pimping and street prostitution, but I, for one, found the analysis of the precipitous decline in the cost of oral sex to be absolutely fascinating. Not only is Levitt and Dubner's analysis interesting economics but their conclusions say a great deal about the evolution of world culture.

Is global warming a reality? Who knows for sure but, whether it is or it isn't, Levitt and Dubner have presented a rather critical commentary on the economics of possible solutions to a problem that may well be considerably less daunting and costly to solve than the likes of Al Gore would have us believe. While "Super Freakonomics" may smack of libertarianism, it's hard to argue with Levitt and Dubner's broader conclusions that government policy frequently falls victim to the law of unintended consequences and that governments rarely, if ever, choose a small-scale inexpensive solution to a problem when a flashier, bigger and more expensive solution is available.

With no punches pulled, "Super Freakonomics" might be brash and cheeky and it certainly isn't textbook economics, but it is thoroughly entertaining and informative. If it causes any voter to raise an eyebrow and question government policy more critically or if it causes any consumer to be more wary of future purchases and less accepting of dogma, publicity or advertising on faith, then Levitt and Dubner will go to bed this evening pleased with the work they've done. And, along the way - what a bonus - it's a certainty that you'll experience a good laugh or two! Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss
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on January 4, 2010
I had to laugh as I read some of the negative reviews. Listen people, it's not intended to be a TEXTBOOK, nor is it written like one, thankfully. I've read both books. Super Freakonomics is a good exercise in critical thinking (something that is becoming sorely lacking in the age of American Idol, thanks to our putrid public schools and Playstation parenting); it makes you think about a lot of "truths" that we take for granted. For example, this book actually made me change some of my thinking about global warming. The book is super-interesting, and full of information that you'd be hard-pressed to find in your typical daily reading; and, it "sexes-up" the fields of microeconomics and behavioral economics. One of the points (relentlessly made) is how we (especially our governments) seem to prefer complex, costly solutions to problems, when cheaper, simpler solutions often exist, and the book does a great job of providing many examples of this. Is it a definitive tome on the many topics it covers? No - again, it's not a textbook, but it was definitely worth the time I spent reading it - I hated putting it down.
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on October 23, 2009
I recall Freakonomics as a really intriguing read, really appreciate 'out of the box' approaches striving to see complex linkages and causes that challenged the assumed wisdom.

Since that casual read, however, I've seen serious scholarly work provide material that undermine (if not nullified) Freaknonomics' material.

Even so, I was looking forward to this when I first heard of it.

However, now that I've read it, I am distressed that a publishing house would put this out and that it will be receiving a massive amount of attention.

The first chapter's discussion on prostitution was, well, shallow and I found myself simply asking: why did anyone think that this was worth featuring in a 'major' book except for titillation. And, when it came to the $500 trick Chicago hooker who had become an economics student, thoughts strayed to 'so, just how does the Chicago Professor who authored this book happened to know this lady ...'

And from there, it really didn't get much better.

As is the rage, let me reserve the greatest frustration and disappointment for the Global Warming chapter which misrepresents scientists, misrepresents science, misrepresents articles, and, in fact, goes counter to what the authors seem to emphasize. Let me make two points to illustrate this:

1. The authors (STRONGLY) imply in the chapter that there was a massive scientific consensus behind global cooling in the 1970s. Their sources for doing so are three articles in the mainstream literature (newspapers) in the 1970s. One has to wonder if they read more than the titles, because the articles themselves make it clear that there was no consensus over "cooling", timing of cooling, and whether this obviates a need for concern over the greenhouse effect. In fact, "cooling" was a hypothesis, never a theory, and the key book on the subject had a forward that questioned the hypothesis but stated that it seemed to merit discussion and further (scientific) study. There have been peer-reviewed studies that highlight that there was no "consensus" on Global Cooling. These published, peer-reviewed articles that can be found with just a few moments of Google searching evidently didn't meet Levitt's or Dubner's standards (or weren't of value because they undermined their arguments).

2. The authors are basically asserting that we shouldn't bother fighting to reduce emissions but, instead, should hold off until there are geoengineering paths to use to drive back down warming. They ignore the very serious issues of, for example, acidification of the oceans and how plants are responding to higher CO2 levels (it isn't all good). More significantly, however, this advocacy of geoengineering goes counter to what could be called the core of Levitt's claimed approach to economic analysis: beware the unforeseen cause and effect, the (perhaps) unknowable linkages. Levitt doesn't bother to explore, in any meaningful manner, the potentially disastrous unknowable cause and effect linkages of proposed geoengineering efforts. [Please note that they could have had a discussion that said 'we don't see emissions falling fast enough to avert serious dangers due to Global Warming, thus we should be working to geoengineering as part of the mitigation path. This is the argument, in essence, that they are now making as challenged on talk shows / such. To make this argument, however, would have been far less titillating and less likely to create a buzz-storm/sell books, thus they went for hyperbole and truthiness rather than sober, thoughtful, and valuable analysis.]

This is a shallow book undeserving of the attention it has and will receive.

And, in the end, it is unclear that Levitt's and Dubner's reputations will be recoverable after all that attention.

And, as I reread material and look to the footnotes, even more weaknesses are coming out -- as experts look to their fields, it seems quite possible that little of the work will remain defensible as having legitimacy.
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on November 15, 2009
Sequels disappoint; don't ask too much of this one. Perhaps you cannot blame authors for wanting to cash in on their popularity, but if Super Freakonomics had been written before Freakonomics, few people would have bought it. The authors are trying very hard to shock and amaze, but the organization is scattered and the research seems questionable.

Their standard formula is to begin with a counterintuitive statement and before your very eyes show you how clever they are. I, for one, do not see how prostitutes are patriotic, and thought that the comparison between Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo forced and unconvincing.

There are many excellent reviews here already, so I will concentrate on an issue that bothers me. The authors propose taming hurricanes or typhoons. I live in a mountainous jungle that is hit by several typhoons in a typical year, and I can see very clearly how typhoons clear out the deadwood, flush clean streambeds, fill up the water supply, and even spread species (which explains how I spotted a snake from our mountains very far downstream along the bank of the river in downtown Taipei). Without typhoons, Taiwan would not have enough water to drink, so every year everybody hopes we get some typhoons: mild typhoons are nicer, but even strong typhoons are necessary.

This August Taiwan was hit by a medium typhoon that dumped nine feet of water on the mountains in three days, burying villages and killing many people. Recent catastrophes of this nature are due not so much to typhoons as to investors (not locals) chopping roads into mountains, planting betel nut trees, and other human activities. So what we need is not fewer typhoons, but more care in dealing with the mountains.

Every year we usually get several typhoons larger than Katrina, but they do little damage, because people have the sense not to build below sea level. Also, everything that can blow away, blew away long ago. Again, my point is that disasters from typhoons or hurricanes are due in large part to short-sighted human development, not the weather.

But suppose people started controlling typhoons. IMHO, that would be a real can of worms. Say Taiwan needed water, but the Philippines and Okinawa did too. A great tug-of-war would result, as each tried to channel the typhoon home. The opposite would hold true, too. If Taiwan didn't want a typhoon, it would have to go somewhere, but where? The neighbors might not want it, either.

The authors seem to have forgotten the Butterfly Effect. Even something so negligible as a butterfly flapping its wings may have far-reaching effects. Unless we can guarantee the long-term consequences of fiddling with typhoons, I say, Let's not!

The authors seek provocation and titillation at the cost of deliberation and far-sightedness. It may sell books, but many of their ideas need a lot more thought.
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on January 29, 2010
I found Super Freakonomics entertaining until the end of the book. If you read this book, do so with a huge grain of salt. The authors have an impressive background, and I have no reason to doubt their professional work. This book, on the other hand, must be viewed as something that was written to make a quick buck, entertain, and make you think.

The authors claim to present their data and conclusions in an unbiased manner and without an agenda. 3/4 of the book flies through stories based on statistics, and the conclusions are amusingly contrary to what you would assume. In presenting the conclusions, the authors use a single source of data, rely on assumptions that are not analyzed at all, and write with stealthy persuasive techniques. But by the end, it's clear the majority of the book is intended to establish credibility - sort of like using straw man arguments - for some very weighty and shocking claims about how to fix global warming. Of course, their grand conclusion is again based on a single source that one must take at face value.

The very end of the book repeats the assertion of a single medical study that circumcision alone decreases the transmission of AIDS by a shocking percentage. That study has serious problems and the conclusion cannot be trusted, but they presented it as fact anyway. That's pretty much how the rest of the book goes. I can't speak for the other conclusions in the book necessarily, but in reading other reviews, others have found similar problems with other parts of the book. It throws the whole book into question. All trust in the authors is gone, despite their hefty pedigrees. The last 1/4 of the book just reeks of a conservative global warming agenda. Are the assertions about how to fix global warming true? I don't know; they could be. But I have absolutely no reason to trust the authors.

Despite the serious problems I have with this book, there are some useful things you can learn from this book. I have no reason to doubt the statements about the field of economics in general. There's a great passage about the work of an economist who found serious flaws in altruism experiments and radically changed them. I also learned that simple solutions can produce immeasurable long-term effects, and there are infinite combinations of factors for why homo economicus behaves in any given situation.

Whatever your opinion of this book, it's a quick read and it makes you use your brain in fun ways.
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on October 20, 2009
I enjoyed Freakonomics very much. Not being an expert in the areas they covered, I trusted their presentation of facts. Their analysis, even if contrarian, seemed compelling and likely correct. Unfortunately, their misrepresentation of CO2 and climate change in this book is so clearly skewed, so designed to sell books rather than reveal insights, that it calls into question their general approach to fact-based analysis. Very disappointing.
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