Sunday, November 1, 2009


I'll say up front that I liked Freakonomics. It provided an eye-opening lesson in pop-economics delivered with nerdy earnestness and a sense of wonder. In that context it didn't seem unrealistic to expect something similar from Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's much anticipated follow-up. Within a few pages though, it was clear that something had gone very wrong. Apparently nerdy earnestness was dumped in favor of cynical contrarianism for this go-round.

The opening section " An Explanatory Note" sets the tone; Oh those crazy middle-aged white guys, how they confounded their publisher with their wacky book and title! So outrageous! So off the hook! ...and the money they walked away from by not pumping out a quick follow-up in the "Dummies" or "Chicken Soup" style? Such credibility! Yes, we see! The picture we're supposed to get is of a pair of gonzo-style economists beholden to nothing more than the objective search for what makes people tick - politics, profits, and prevailing beliefs be damned.

...and off they go, through what I imagine the the authors believe is a first-rate thrashing of conventional wisdom. The style is smug, self-congratulatory, and in its way, self-defeating. It's an approach that has more to do with polemics than research and one that ultimately undermines Levitt and Dubner's oft-trumpeted objectivity. Oh sure, the data is bountiful when it comes to supporting their own assertions. In the case of other views, forget it. Readers are left to settle for sketchy explanations and scorn.

In a way it's comical. Here's two people repeatedly claiming the mantle of objectivity while glibly dismissing the opposition with the same tired tropes we've been hearing from John Stossel for years. In one embarrassingly tortured metaphor, the movement to stop global warming is compared to religion, complete with high-priests, patron saints, sackcloths, and a fiery apocalypse. Other unsupported assumptions include the notion that governments prefer costly and cumbersome solutions over cheap and simple ones (Really. It's in their DNA.) and the private sector offers solutions while governments get in the way. The intent appears to be to weave a narrative that champions cheap, simple, private sector solutions for all that ails us.

I would have probably found it easier to ignore this snark and bias if the outright omissions and misrepresentations weren't so rampant. Much has already been made of how Superfreakonomics spins global warming, but I was more dismayed by their treatment of auto safety. Thanks to a myriad of factors Levitt and Dubner ignored readers are left to ponder a road safety narrative that conforms perfectly to their simple solutions/private sector fairy tale. According to Superfreakonomics, the last half-century of road safety in America goes something like this:

Robert McNamara invented seat belts when he worked at Ford in the 1950s. Today they cost $25.00 a pop and they're responsible for the relative decline in auto fatalities over the last 50 years.

Did you notice what was missing there? Yes, it was a discussion of air bags, tougher drunk driving laws, better driver education, better designed roads, crumple zones, head restraints, larger rear view mirrors, more rear view mirrors, more effective exterior lights and turn signals, safer car interiors, safer auto glass, medical advances, EMT advances, better emergency communication and response time, safety requirements and regulations, anti-lock brakes, better emergency medicine, advances in tire safety, and probably a dozen other things. For the purposes of Superfreakonomics readers are expected to ignore those factors. Clearly these aren't the cheap, simple, private sector solutions we're looking for.

Now I recognize that "tone" is a fairly subjective measure by which to judge a book, but if a particular book's authors refer endlessly to how cold-blooded, objective, and data driven they are, then I think tone matters. Why? Because if the data is on your side you don't need smug. If the data is on your side you don't need condescension. You don't need name-calling, snark, generalizations, or omissions either. While it might help sell books, adopting such tactics doesn't further our understanding of complex topics.

Or perhaps the Levitt and Dubner would explain it differently. Maybe they'd point out that all the snark is a classic example of externalities; it's the price readers and genuinely objective observers have to pay for the author's contrarian dog-and-pony show. Levitt and Dubner get appearances on 20/20, The Daily Show, and a host of other media outlets while truly objective discourse pays the price. Now that's Superfunny.