Harper Collins, 2009, 270 pages, C$36.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-55468-608-7
Picture this: You go to a party, where your colossal intelligence immediately sets you apart from the crowd. You then meet another guy who seems just as eager to make fun of everyone else who’s there. Both of you are unstoppable put-down machines. In conversations, he’s the kind of wit that enjoys telling people when they’re wrong, and what they don’t know. At the end of the party, you go “I like feeling superior to other people, you like feeling superior to other people, we should totally hang out.”
You friends keep telling you that he’s not quite as wonderful as you think he is, but you brush it off. In fact, you find that his type of patter is great fun to other parties when you’re making conversation. Then, a while later, you meet the guy again. The magic happens again, except that at the end of the night, he starts going on an incoherent rant about how global warming is all a sham, and he can solve it using twenty dollars worth of duct tape and plastic bags. As you slowly step away from your once-best-friend-forever, you start thinking: what happened?
What happened, indeed, is the main question after reading Superfreakonomics, the follow up to Levitt & Dubner’s massively successful 2005 pop-economics book. Their conceptual overreach, contrarian shtick and intellectual contradictions all reach an apex during a fifth chapter tackling Global Warming, and they only serve to highlight the problems with the authors’ two books so far.
After all, most of Freakonomics was based on telling people that what they knew about the world was incomplete, wrong and that even their axioms did not reflect reality as it happened. Posing themselves as cold-eyed intellectual tough-guys led by the dispassionate forces of rationality and economics, Levitt & Dubner deal in trivia, reinforced by a little bit of cynical shock value. Telling people, in the first book, that crime had seldom been so low appealed to hard numbers; telling them that the decline may have been caused by abortion (in reducing the number of disadvantaged children turning to crime) is the classic example of shock-pandering: Pro-life people simply dislike the assertion, while pro-choice activists find something here to reinforce their biases.
As the prototypical guy who loves to know more than anyone else, I fell for Freakonomics from beginning to end, spouting trivia (“Pools are more dangerous than guns!”) at the slightest opportunity. I even gave a copy as a gift before the mounting amount of scepticism made me calm down. What’s not so great about being a contrarian is that is often leads one to take opposite viewpoints “just because”, and that can become a dogma in itself. Superfreakonomics and its prequel don’t just cater to those people; it flatters them for their bad habits.
So it is that scepticism is the word of the day in reading Superfreakonomics. The good news, I suppose, is that most of the book is on the level of Freakonomics: Engaging writing, memorable examples, careful use of anecdote to illustrate larger microeconomic points, interesting research and an overarching tendency to link specific examples to a larger theory. We learn about drunk-walking, prostitution economics (using words such as “pimpact”), terrorist profiling, unintended consequences, and monkey prostitutes. (There’s a joke to make here about two pop-economic vulgarizers’ obsession with prostitution that I’ll leave to snarkier commentators.) Along the way, Levitt & Dubner take a crowbar to a number of cherished beliefs, including altruism, substandard doctors, the Kitty Genovese murder, the effectiveness of child seats and, oh yes, global warming. References at the back of the book chew up 36 pages (50 with the index), or about 13% of the book (18.5% with the index), which tells you something both about the reference trail and the ridiculous size of this overpriced $37 book.
The first four chapters try to establish a framework that tells us two things at once: First, that the world is complicated and that there are unintended consequences to everything we do. But at the same time, Levitt & Dubner also try to sell us the idea that some solutions are simple: Even as they show how difficult it is to get doctors to wash their hands (even today), they also tell us that hand-washing is a simple solution to fatal problems.
These two ideas are not mutually incompatible, but they don’t go well together (one could say that it’s a simple idea with complex consequences) and this tension is nowhere more obvious than in the much-criticized fifth chapter, which tackles global warming with an “aw, shucks, it’s not as bad as you think and it can be fixed easily anyway.” Surefire way to earn controversy and sales, this viewpoint nonetheless exposes the book to substantial criticism. I’m certainly not qualified to take on issues of large-scale climatology, but the contrarian in me can’t help but notice that most of Chapter 5 is based on a single biased source: a visit to Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, a business that specializes in making money from ideas. Ideas about global warming, for instance. Ideas that the problem isn’t that bad (shock!) and can be solved with simple fixes (relief! –followed by check-writing). Superfreakonomics’ usually fast and far-reaching tone changes completely during this section, turning into a fawning profile of Intellectual Ventures that even had me wondering if they’d consider my résumé. I agree that Nathan Myhrvold is one of the coolest, smartest human beings on planet Earth… but I can’t help but flash back to the rest of the book and its insistence that altruism doesn’t exist, that well-meaning policies have unfortunate impacts and that the real world is, well, really complicated. When Superfreakonomics becomes similar to the kind of article that local papers write about con artists peddling their perpetual-motion machines, it’s time to put on the extra-sceptical goggles.
Too bad, really, because it’s a classic case of “you should have stopped talking earlier”: Levitt & Dubdner correctly identified global warming (or rather, Global Warming) as the sacrosanct issue of the time, the closest analogue to religious belief that their pool of potential readers may have. The impulse to apply their usual everything-you-know-is-wrong shtick must have been irresistible. Alas, it also carries consequences –such as turning readers against them. What’s the cost/benefit analysis of that scenario? Who wants to reward trolls?
On the other hand, overreach is a good antidote against uncritical belief about the rest of the book, which isn’t such a bad thing after all. Chapter 5 put aside, Superfreakonomics manages to recreate the electric huh-a-page reading experience of the original, which already isn’t too shabby. Readers may want, however, to wait a while until a “revised and expanded edition” comes out: not only will it fix errors in the main text (much as the original Freakonomics was corrected a year after release) and allow pundits to publish their debunking essays, but chances are that the paperback edition will be a better value for money than this unjustifiably overpriced hardcover. Savvy readers and freakonomists can probably agree on one thing: paying nearly $40 for an airy 220-pages main text makes no economic sense at all.