I enjoyed Levitt and Dubner’s 2005 book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything quite a bit, so I was excited to hear that the duo had collaborated on this sequel. You can draw a fairly straight line from economics to the field of behavioral economics, and from there it’s just a quick jaunt over to psychology in general, so what I like most about the books are that they use model building and data analysis techniques to answer questions that are at least put in different contexts and at most completely off the wall. Either way, it’s interesting.
Questions addressed in Superfreakonomics include why terrorists should buy life insurance (answer: it helps them circumvent computer software used in profiling), how hookers are like department store Santas (answer: both work more hours during holidays), what killed so many babies and mothers in Victorian hospitals (answer: doctors who didn’t wash up after going elbow deep in cadavers), whether it’s safer to drive drunk or walk drunk (answer: drive drunk), whether pimps or realtors are more valuable to their constituents (answer: pimps), how much car seats improve child passenger safety over regular seatbelts (answer: not much at all), and a lot more. There’s also some dubious stuff on global warming that’s been discussed elsewhere, as well as a hilarious anecdote about the invention of monkey prostitution.
Of course, it’s not just the answers that are interesting, but the process that the authors walk you through to get to them from their initial conjecture. The book is entertaining and well written, with a tone that does that magical trick of straddling the line between being informal and scientific. Levitt and Dubner use the tools of science in general and economics in specific to tackle these unconventional topics, and I enjoyed watching them go at it and do their best to surprise me with what they found. Occasionally they get a little too bombastic (comparing Al Gore to the high priest of a church full of climate change zealots comes to mind) but in general it’s really fun and it gives you no end of little factoids to throw out at your next cocktail party.