Wednesday, January 13, 2010

SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

If you liked Freakonomics, chances are you’ll like SuperFreakonomics. Once again, Levitt and Dubner explore a miscellany of topics with the underlying themes of people responding to incentives and that there are unintended consequences to action (or inaction). Sometimes the topics segue nicely, sometimes less so. There were interesting results here and there, but too often I desired more of an explanation regarding the causal mechanism involved. By this I mean that they are using large scale statistical analyses (likely something like factor analysis) and they are examining which variables pop out and how much of the variance they are responsible for. Good economists/scientists try not to theorize too much when they are uncertain and one should defer to data if it is clear and was collected with sound methodology, but sometimes a ‘fact’ is not that useful if one does not know the causal mechanism.

The main flaw in the book was their coverage of anthropogenic global warming/climate change. I understand their stance on geoengineering but a few things they said were either wrong or specious - Shame on them for presenting some of the material in a misleading manner.
Greater specificity of this point and a brief summary of the book can be found below.
Note: The content below could be seen as a useful summary or a spoiler depending on who you are.
  • Supposedly, if just examining your own safety, it is better to drive drunk than walk drunk.
  • TV helped empower women in rural India.
  • Sharks kill about 6 people a year while elephants killed over 200. (We fear one and not another. I imagine race/geography has much to do with it.
  • They do a large chunk on exploring prostitution (in Chicago and historically). Basically, high end prostitutes seem to have a lucrative job and it is their choice while street prostitutes do not make a lot of money and have undesirable lives. Additionally, the price of oral sex has declined (as such things are more easily accessible given to changing cultural practices), and prostitutes will make money with a pimp.
  • They briefly discuss the pay differences between men and women but this was only covered superficially and could have been better.
  • Babies in-utero during Ramadan might have greater birth effects due to fasting.
  • Children born in earlier months do better in sports (similar to Outliers).
  • Terrorists tend to come from educated well off families.
  • They did a longer examination of hospital emergency doctors but I didn’t find it that useful (although parts were interesting and it was good to hear much data is been tracked and collected).
  • Nobel winners live longer than nominees (not much more data was presented)
  • They indicated people might be able to hold off their own deaths, but I need more evidence to be convinced.
  • Some cancers are not helped by chemo. For example, lung cancer results in a large expense (and trial) for little gains in longevity.
  • They say that cancer mortality stats are basically flat over the years but this was also misleading. Some cancers have declined or are very treatable while others have increased over the past decades.
  • They provided excellent coverage of the Kitty Genovese murder (although I disliked their presentation). This is a famous story in psychology and sociology of the supposed inaction of 38 bystanders to a woman being repeatedly attacked. I learned that the number of bystanders was probably closer to 6, that some people may have in fact called the police (it was thought no one did) and that the guy was a psychopath who actually killed someone else but also demonstrated helping behaviour in other domains. Things, as usual, were more complicated and not what is popularly understood.
  • They think there might be a link between crime, imprisonment and TV, but they weren’t too specific about a causal mechanism. So, once again, interesting if true, but more is needed.
  • I did think they had good coverage of “Altruism” in that asking “Are people altruistic is the wrong question to ask?” I think it should be extended self-interest and the issue should be explored with nuances and complexity.
  • That Dr’s didn’t wash their hands and therefore more women died of childbirth
  • Ammonium nitrate helps feed the world.
  • They discussed how seatbelts have been helpful but they did not mention Ralph Nader - how odd.
  • That for children 2 and older, the number of fatalities of seatbelts and cars eats are the same, but car seats likely reduce injury more.

Nature, Geoengineering and Global Warming.

  • They usefully discuss the idea of altering ‘nature’ and how we have already done this so that should not be someone’s objection unless they are prepared to take a loss on many things (health care, food production, warmth)
  • That it might be possible to reduce hurricanes and using tubes to reduce the surface temperature of water. This method would be very cheap compared to the costs from damage of a hurricane.
  • That local food might not be as good for some aspects of environmentalism because of higher production and transportation costs.
  • That food is a greater contributor to CO2 emissions than transportation (and how methane is more problematic than carbon as it is worse as a greenhouse gas despite being less prevalent).
  • Windpower and improvements in transportation aren’t sufficient as coal is the main problem.
  • Good coverage of the problem being one of negative externalities and I liked their chain from coal to electricity.

The sketchiness:

  • Regarding the validity of human caused global warming, they used sketchy language like “nor do we really know”. Of course this is true, but it is also true for everything we know, so they should have offered some discussion of that and probabilities or just not said it.
  • They say humans only account for 2% of emissions because most of it is plant decay. Most emissions are in balance but what humans emit is the main problem. Shame on them - I covered this before on the podcast using SciAm as a source.
  • Similarly, they make the repeated but misguided claim about water vapour being more important than carbon and that it isn’t included in climate models. This is untrue (again, SciAm).
  • At one point it seems they are quoting one economist versus the entire IPCC.
  • They say average global temperature over the last couple years has decreased. This is also so misguided it is basically untrue. 1998 was a very warm year and recent years have been cooler compared to that, but 8 of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred this century.
  • They only half quote Stern, talking about costs but not benefits.
  • They talk about the level of carbon being much higher 80 million years ago... so what? In the past New York was underwater – that is what people don’t want.
  • While it was interesting to hear more geoengineering possiblities, they didn’t fully discus the pros and cons of the situation and the responsibility of academics or intellectuals regarding the promotion of such things. (Also, if it is so cheap why doesn’t the really rich guy just do it himself?)
  • They briefly look at how circumcision can reduce the transmission of HIV. I covered this on the podcast, but they should have at least mentioned that other studies have found less positive results.
  • The ending with capuchins and coin exchange was interesting. The preference for Jello vs. Apple slices and how this “coin-food market” responded to income shocks and price changes (the monkeys responded rationally and they demonstrate loss aversion). The incident of monkey prostitution was amusing (as soon as a monkey got a token he gave it to a female... and they soon copulated).

Finally, they do sort of end on an odd martyr note by implying a parallel between some of the ideas they promote and the ostracism received by the guy who promoted hand washing.

A good book, but the poor coverage of global warming casts a doubtful shadow over the myriad other topics of which I previously would have had less suspicion.


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