*SuperFreakonomics*

by on September 29, 2009 at 7:33 am in Books | Permalink

Doing the math, you find that on a per-mile basis, a drunk walker is eight times more likely to get killed than a drunk driver.

The subtitle of the book is Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance and you can pre-order it here.  The authors are…come on guys…need I tell you?

The Harper and Collins press blurb offers this summary:

"SuperFreakonomics challenges the way we
think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such
questions as:

  • How is a street prostitute like a department-store
    Santa?
  • Why are doctors so bad at washing their
    hands?
  • How much good do car seats do?
  • What's the best way to catch a
    terrorist?
  • Did TV cause a rise in crime?
  • What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway
    deaths have in common?
  • Are people hard-wired for altruism or
    selfishness?
  • Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
  • Which adds more value: a pimp or a
    Realtor?"

I would stress different angles.  My favorite part of the book was the presentation of the List-Levitt critique of experimental economics.  In particular the authors discuss whether the subject participants are more cooperative to begin with and also whether they are primed to please the experimenter.  The biographical information on John List is fascinating.  There is a very good revisionist account of the Kitty Genovese story; the neighbors didn't perform as miserably as many people think.  Terrorists are especially likely to rent rather than buy, especially unlikely to take out life insurance (which doesn't pay off in cases of suicide), and likely to have a large number of cash withdrawals relative to other transactions.

Geo-engineering, as a response to global warming, receives more pages than any other single topic.

This book is recognizably in the style of Freakonomics, a book I suspect you already have made up your mind about.  I will say only that SuperFreakonomics is a more than worthy sequel, a super sequel you might say.  If you're a fan of Freakonomics, you'll like this too.  This really is the fall season of big, big books.

Andy September 29, 2009 at 8:34 am

I’ve been looking forward to this book. I really enjoyed Freakonomics, so I’m excited that this one should also be appealing.

Andrew September 29, 2009 at 9:21 am

babar, no need to admit it, the DHS already knows.

Maybe the TIA people could set up a MMORPG where terrorists could play out their angst virtually and we could make political mistakes in response to the panic without any damage actually having to be done.

R.J. Lehmann September 29, 2009 at 9:49 am

Life insurers *DO* pay out on suicides. In fact, there’s virtually no standard claims exclusions in the life insurance area, with fraud on an application as pretty much the only reason a life insurer would ever deny a claim.

libert September 29, 2009 at 10:39 am

@ Zamfir & R.J. Lehmann:

Do you think the public/government would allow an insurance company to give money to the family and/or friends of terrorists after a suicide bombing? Can you imagine the outcry if insurance companies were shoveling cash over to Al-Qaeda after September 11th, 2001?

Richard A. September 29, 2009 at 11:06 am

“Doing the math, you find that on a per-mile basis, a drunk walker is eight times more likely to get killed than a drunk driver.”

A drunk driver is most likely traveling more that eight times faster than a drunk walker which would mean the drunk driver is more likely to be killed for a given unit of time.

You can do this little trick when it comes to airplanes vs. cars — time compared to distance for fatalities.

Rob September 29, 2009 at 11:41 am

“Doing the math, you find that on a per-mile basis, a drunk walker is eight times more likely to get killed than a drunk driver.”

Most sentences that begin with “Doing the math,” tend not to be very convincing.

boyz2men September 29, 2009 at 12:27 pm

I am actually surprised that List remains under-appreciated more boradly. His story is great, and his research is nobel-worthy. He started the field of field experiments for goodness-sake!

AADL September 29, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Life insurance contracts generally have two-year exclusion periods from their date of issue. They do pay claims in cases of suicide after two years.

KBurt September 29, 2009 at 2:22 pm

“Terrorists are especially likely to rent rather than buy, especially unlikely to take out life insurance (which doesn’t pay off in cases of suicide), and likely to have a large number of cash withdrawals relative to other transactions.”

Terrorists sound a lot like college students

Mattw September 29, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Drunk drivers are probably less drunk than drunk walkers. And I’d say the more relevant measurement is probability of death per period of time, not distance.

Barkley Rosser September 29, 2009 at 4:03 pm

I am surprised that List is not a coauthor. He is one of those rare folks who started out at a
fairly obscure academic institution (University of Central Florida) only to rise to the highest
level (University of Chicago by way of the CEA and the University of Maryland).

He did not begin field experiments, although he revived them more recently in an article in JEBO
in the mid-1990s with his major prof from Wyoming, Jason Shogren. Vernon Smith says that the first
economics experiments were field experiments, the Taylor time and motion studies.

What the three “h’s” have in common is that they all begin with “h” :-).

I suspect that the poop on the kangaroos is that they eat grass in areas where one cannot grow crops.

Steve Sailer September 29, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Isn’t “Freakonomics” Exhibit A in how economists, deluded by their seeming success in understanding the, you know, economy took their eye off the ball and instead attempted to imperialize other fields beyond economics?

Daniel Reeves September 29, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Freakonomics was interesting for sure, but I remain skeptical for reasons well explained here by Willem Buiter

http://blogs.ft.com/maverecon/2009/09/i-know-i-know-nothing-but-at-least-i-know-that/

He addresses some important points– it’s true that economists really don’t have huge sample sizes to work with–, but I feel he greatly underestimates the value of explanation (or, as it’s called in science, “theory”).

He references the big bang theory, saying, “Scientists at CERN may be able (wittingly or unwittingly) to create little bangs and mini black holes a few miles below ground in Switzerland and France, but this does not amount to a test of the big bang theory. They have no more than one dodgy observation on that.”

And I think the big bang theory is a great example… because it shows how very little we actually need empirical precedent sometimes. See, the big bang theory came long before any conclusive data validating it came out. After the CERN mission, it was blindingly obvious that the big bang theory was very precise.

For a supposed econ professor, he really understates the value of models.

My point is this: if Freakonomics can come up with some really sensible explanations for their observations, then that’s fine. It’s certainly more productive than dismissing observations and explanations on the grounds that there may have been flaws in collecting the data.

agnostic September 29, 2009 at 8:59 pm

“R.j.Lehmann, that sounds to me like a good example of Freakonomics stuff in general. It sounds clever, sometimes even insightful, but once you know a few details of the subjects, it becomes clear that the authors did not.”

Exactly, although this applies also to popular economists who aren’t annoying, such as Robert Frank. He emphasizes more the economic way of thinking, rather than pretending he’s got a crystal ball, but a fair minority of The Economic Naturalist was pretty wishy-washy, especially the chapter on the mating market.

For my money, books like Arthur De Vany’s Hollywood Economics or Liebowitz & Margolis’ books are much better popularizations of economics. The simple reason? They know what they’re talking about! No series of assumptions about what might be true, followed by an impressive chain of reasoning — just pictures of the real world, and laying out which hypotheses can and cannot explain the observed patterns.

The TV and crime example is particularly stupid. There was a huge crime wave starting around 1900 in the US, which peaked in 1933. There was a decline from then until the late 1950s. What did that have to do with TV? Zero. Attempts to model the ups and downs in crime need to be general because crime has been around forever, and has been going up and down forever. It doesn’t have anything to do with abortion or TV.

Turn to ecologists instead of economists — they’re much better at modeling the interactions between populations, say between hosts and parasites, that could be carried over to model crime.

curren caples September 29, 2009 at 11:32 pm

People who complain about Steven Levitt and Freakonomics are the worst. Get over it you dreadful bastards.

Vincent October 8, 2009 at 6:34 pm

What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
1) Having three-syllables
2) Starting with a stressed syllable
3) Starting with “h”
4) Bad news

cheap plus size wedding dresses January 28, 2010 at 1:41 am

The theory that made Levitt famous back in 1999, that legalizing abortion cut crime a generation later, has taken a drubbing in the scholarly journals in recent years.

five fingers September 22, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I gree with it!

食べるラー油 November 6, 2010 at 8:01 am

Are they saying Managua is more dangerous than San Jose? Hard to believe.

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