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!"