So, the front cover of my first conquest of 2010 already almost broke the only rule I’d set for myself. It’s a shiny white cover with the authors’ names in slightly raised lettering. However, it’s also hardcover and doesn’t have any glossy color photos (unless that’s a real picture of an exploding fruit on the bottom of the cover, but I’m 84% certain it’s not), so I think I’m safe.
On the other hand, it has a laughably long subtitle: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Hmm, a shiny hardcover with an exploding fruit, long subtitle, and raised lettering. Not exactly a recipe for success, right? Well, I suppose this is why one should never judge a book by its cover, because this is going into the record as a Recommended Reading.
Actually, let me take that back. You can judge a book by its cover, somewhat. As if the graphic design doesn’t scream “Please Pay Attention” loudly enough, the content itself immediately continues the theme. The first two sentences of the book proclaim, “The time has come to admit that in our first book [Freakonomics], we lied. Twice.” Pages later, we read that “as you leave your friend’s party [in an intoxicated state], the decision should be clear: driving is safer than walking.” (One wonders if that last line will eventually provoke a second admission of lying in the next installment, which must inevitably be titled SuperDuperFreakonomics: Funny Wars, Political PMS, and Why Rapists Make the Best Babysitters.)
But don’t let the hyperbole fool you: authors Steven Levitt (a professor at the University of Chicago) and Stephen Dubner (a former editor for The New York Times Magazine) are no lightweights, and they pack plenty of legitimate punches to keep readers scratching their heads for a considerably long time. (I’m still scratching mine.) For example, did you know that a Chicago prostitute is statistically more likely to have sex with a police officer than to be arrested by one? (The undercover beat is just brutal.) Or that many hospital infections could be prevented by doctors washing their hands? Alright, alright, so you already knew that one. But what you probably didn’t know — unless you happen to work at a hospital — is that, amidst a sea of failed attempts to compel doctors to comply with basic hygienic standards, simply installing a computer screensaver at one hospital depicting the swarms of bacteria on a human hand brought health compliance up to an almost perfect score.
As does its predecessor, SuperFreakonomics deals in human behavior and how various incentives, executed intelligently, can pretty much get human beings to do anything. Hence, the 1961 Milgram Experiment — except that Levitt and Dubner wave breezily at this landmark psychological study, deeming it a prime exemplar in the crowded field of How to Make Any Experiment Confirm Your Findings by Conducting it in a Lab. And somehow, this actually makes sense (the experiment’s mild repudiation, not the study itself). You see, the authors gently intone, human beings are little more than self-interested machines; remove the carrot and stick, and you’ve got yourself a rabbit with nowhere to go.
This pleasantly short 216-page book is replete with observations, projections, and muses that will gnaw at you. They will make you wonder how you didn’t think of these ideas first, even while mentally flogging yourself for allowing a modicum of gullibility to seep into your otherwise cynical worldview. Combating hurricanes with a small army of large rings centered around pipes leading into the depths? Kissing global warming goodbye by shooting sulfur dioxide eighteen miles into the air? Yes, Levitt and Dubner respond gleely, yes, we can.
What was perhaps most fascinating in this book were the many ways in which data was collected on unpredictable and uncontrollable events. In economics, as well as in politics and other social science fields, it is quite difficult to achieve exactness in the same sense as the other, “hard” sciences (i.e. chemistry, physics, etc.). This is primarily because, unlike those other areas of study, economists and political scientists are not able to conduct controlled experiments comparing one set to another.
However, these limitations can be mitigated to near-miraculous degrees at times. For example, in a section on global warming, Dubner and Levitt note that in the first several days following September 11th in the U.S. (when all civilian flights were grounded), the ground temperature increased fairly dramatically due to less sun shielding from aircraft exhaust trails. Using the aftermath of a domestic tragedy to produce quantifiable research that would never have been available via testing, the authors make it quite clear that virtually anything can be studied scientifically if you dig deeply enough.
Of course, the digging of Dubner and Levitt is accompanied by their own giggling soundtrack, as the machinations of their own nerdiness are readily translated into annoyingly cute barbs at fellow economists and so forth. And now that I’m a little older and wiser than when I’d read the prequel, I’m more than a little shocked that I had never before caught on to Levitt and Dubner’s obvious ideological leanings bubbling beneath these pages’ surfaces. (Hint: Chicago school of economics.) That said, readers from both sides of the aisle will have no problem enjoying this idiosyncratic tour through the intersection of the human mind and the free market.