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Superdisappointing

In Superfreakonomics, the follow-up to their 2005 phenomenon, the authors seem to have fallen short of substantive material. Don’t miss the last chapter, though.

Rajiv Rao | Print Edition: December 13, 2009

The good thing about Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s send-up to their gigantic 2005 bestseller Freakonomics is that it is full of stuff that makes for great cocktail conversation. For instance, after reading this book, you could sidle up to someone at a party and point out that because kangaroo farts contain no methane the marsupials are far better to eat than methane-venting cows who are major culprits of climate change.

While reaching out for a kebab, you could tell your friends that the reason condoms in India malfunction more than 15 per cent of the time is because 60 per cent of Indian men have substandard penises—unless of course you’re single and trying to impress the ladies. In which case, you could either talk breathlessly about how television has empowered women here or, in a bolder albeit trickier move, observe that the price for oral sex has fallen precipitously in 100 years.

The problem is, much of the book is peppered with this sort of trivia that doesn’t amount to much. In their first book, Levitt and Dubner—the former, an award-winning economist who teaches at the University of Chicago, and the latter a well-known writer for The New York Times— vowed the world by rigorously analysing data to explain certain phenomena. They persuasively argued, for instance, that the sudden drop in crime in New York in the 1990s was more a result of the legalisation of abortion rather than effective crime fighting, thus preventing future criminals from being born to low-income single mothers.

The route to such revelations was methodical, almost magical, where the layers of the puzzle were slowly peeled away to reveal the core discovery. Instead, this book seems more haphazard and short on substance. For instance, after some perfunctory number crunching, we are told that children’s car seats may be no safer than seatbelts or that drinking and walking is far more dangerous than drinking and driving. Their section on prostitutes—once again riding on sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s decades-long research which added heft to the first book—is ho-hum, and the chapter on the upscale hooker Allie, while good fun, is more of a magazine profile rather than an exercise in microeconomics.

The most entertaining chapter—and the most controversial—is the last one, on climate change. The authors visit Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft, and his merry band of renowned scientists who are trying to solve global warming. Their discovery: Carbon dioxide is not as much of a problem as methane and other gases; water vapour is far more lethal than CO2; melting glaciers don’t cause rising sea levels, the thermal expansion of water does.

Myhrvold says that every time a volcano has erupted—including Pinatubo in the Philippines recently—the earth was covered by a sulphur dioxide haze which actually reduced temperatures on earth. Myhrvold’s solution? Snake an 18-mile hose-pipe up to the troposphere, pump sulphur dioxide—and presto, reverse the warming process. This breathless profiling of the firm’s solutions, rather than an analysis of them, has caused a maelstrom of protests, including a scathing letter written to Levitt by Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, a Professor of Geophysical Sciences, also at the University of Chicago, which you can check out on the Internet.

Still, if there’s any reason to read this book that strains to be as exciting as its predecessor, do so for this chapter and the furore that it has caused.

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