Reviews of Books I Didn`t Read: SuperFreakonomics
December 11, 2009, 02:47 PM
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I've been skimming a few books at the book store. Here's one:

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

It must annoy U. of Chicago economist Levitt — in a fuming all the way to the bank kinda way — that he gets compared to Malcolm Gladwell a lot, when anybody just flipping idly through their respective books ought to be able to notice that Levitt is a lot smarter.

My impression after a half hour is that SuperFreakonomics is very competently done. I didn't see anything implausible, in contrast to the way you can't read Gladwell for 3 minutes without stumbling upon something that sounds just plain wrong. (SuperFreakonomics elicited much angry response because it expresses some skepticism about Climate Change dogma, but I don't know anything about climate, so I skipped those parts.)

Really, the appropriate comparison isn't Levitt to Gladwell, it's Dubner to Gladwell. Dubner is better with words than numbers, so he found somebody who is better with numbers than with words to team up with. Dubner doesn't make anywhere near as much money as Gladwell does winging it alone, but Dubner's not making himself into a laughing stock either.

Yet, from my idiosyncratic point of view, SuperFreakonomics seemed a little dull. I learned, for example, that prostitution offers a convenient way for lazy women to earn a living. But I didn't see anything on topics of much interest to me. For example, Levitt's work with Roland Fryer isn't mentioned in the index.

Now that I think about it, that might be intentional. Consider it from Levitt's point of view. He's a rational, risk-averse economist. He knows his book will make a lot of money no matter what he puts in it. So, maybe Levitt figured, "What do I need Heckman and Sailer punching holes in my reputation for, anyway? I'll just stay away from subjects where they know more than I do, and we'll all be happy."

In contrast, Gladwell has a natural born kamikaze pilot's instinct for lashing back at criticism from exactly the wrong people: "Pinker? Murray? Posner? Sailer? Bring 'em on!"