Book review: SuperFreakonomics

The sequel to Freakonomics does not disappoint.

I sometimes wish Freakonomics were written many years earlier. I would have chosen to study economics so I could spend my time conjuring wonderful social experiments instead of fretting over improperly kerned fonts.

But kerning be damned—at least for a couple of days—because SuperFreakonomics is unputdownable. This sequel to Freakonomics, the book that started the pop economics movement, does not disappoint.

Levitt and Dubner are brilliant at locating statistics that seem to defy common sense and then weaving an astonishing story around them. Apparently, the most educated people in a hospital are the worst at washing their hands. I would never think to make sense of this poor hygiene behaviour of doctors via the introduction of seatbelts in automobiles and the invention of hurricane diffusion—all fascinating anecdotes by themselves, but together a wild ride of a story.

Whereas the content in Dear Undercover Economist is largely self-serving, SuperFreakonomics seeks to explore subjects in worlds we didn’t know existed or rarely encounter. For example, prostitution. On my commute home from work, I pass a man hired to hold up a sign promoting a brothel belonging to an Olympian hopeful. When I get home, I worry about my dinner burning—not the cost–benefit equation for a female escort of hiring a pimp compared to working the streets herself.

I like how Levitt and Dubner choose to highlight the work of contemporary economists. This helps keep SuperFreakonomics relevant and topical. Levitt and Dubner write about the recession and terrorist attacks. They have also devoted the largest—and my favourite—chapter to the most talked-about issue in the last few years: climate change.

And thank goodness. I am not well-read in global warming literature as usually it can’t sustain my interest for long. SuperFreakonomics keeps the conversation well-balanced and puts forth compelling and rational arguments. I can see it becoming contentious very quickly among the tree-huggers though. I mean, how dare suggest that cutting transportation emissions will not make a difference, or that injecting even more chemicals into the atmosphere will help? But as we learn in the first book, people respond to incentives, and the lesson in this follow up is that cheap and simple fixes do work.

SuperFreakonomics is less of a book littered with irrelevant jargon and tabulated data and more like the print version of TED Talks. If you have enjoyed even just one TED presentation, this book just shot to the top of your to-read list.

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