Superfreakonomics: Not That Super Or FreakyS

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of Superfreakonomics, cast themselves as iconoclastic contrarians. But in many ways, their book is actually pretty conventional.

In an "explanatory note" on the text, Levitt and Dubner admit (in somewhat disingenuous "we're-so-bad" fashion) that their previous book, Freakonomics, lacked "a unifying theme." Superfreakonomics sort of has one — the authors write in the introduction that "it seems to be part of the human condition to believe in our own predictive abilities — and, just as well, to quickly forget how bad our predictions turned out to be." Their aim is to provide a lighthearted and eclectic corrective to this stodgy short-sightedness — a challenge to the status quo, complete with jokes.

Some of their revelations are quite interesting. Particularly timely in light of the recent horror in Richmond is their takedown of the standard view of the Kitty Genovese story. Genovese's death has become a symbol of the apathy of Americans — and New Yorkers in particular — in the face of suffering. A New York Times account of the event famously began, "for more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. [...] Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead." In fact, the number of witnesses was more like six, and one of them may have called the police in time to save Genovese — but they were slow to respond because they thought it was a domestic violence call. As Levitt and Dubner frame it, the Genovese story is less about uncaring bystanders and more about incompetent police and sensationalizing reporters. They roll this information together with a critique of modern altruism research to form a convincing argument that people at large are neither as evil nor as good as they're sometimes made out to be.

Levitt and Dubner are less enlightening on the subject of women in the workplace. We've already critiqued their discussion of prostitutes, but a drop in hookers' relative wages isn't the only social development they try to pin on "the feminist revolution." The other is the decline in the quality of schools, which they blame on women's entry into high-paying professions that had previously been closed to them, like medicine and law. Levitt and Dubner write,

As a consequence, the schoolteacher corps began to experience a brain drain. In 1960, about 40 percent of female teachers scored in the top quintile of IQ and other aptitude tests, with only 8 percent in the bottom. Twenty years later, fewer than half as many were in the top quintile, more than twice as many in the bottom. It hardly helped that teachers' wages were falling significantly in relation to those of other jobs. "The quality of teachers has been declining for decades," the chancellor of New York City's public schools declared in 2000, "and no one wants to talk about it."

The authors don't suggest that we turn back the clock on feminism in order to benefit schoolchildren, but they do question whether women have really profited from their increased opportunities. They mention the wage gap, then contend that because women take fewer finance classes and more "career interruptions" than men, they are actually choosing their lower wages. Levitt and Dubner write, "while gender discrimination may be a minor contributor to the male-female wage differential, it is desire — or lack thereof — that accounts for most of the wage gap." It's hardly a new argument, and their question, "could it be that men have a weakness for money just as women have a weakness for children?" isn't particularly groundbreaking. They don't explain why women should bear the full responsibility for educating schoolchildren, or how districts might make teaching more competitive with other professions. By bookending their discussion of women's work with talk about working girls, Levitt and Dubner try to make their arguments sound hip and different — but really, blaming women not only for their own lower wages but also for the problems of society is pretty darn conventional.

Then there's Levitt and Dubner's discussion of global warming. This part of the book has gotten a lot of media play — Levitt talked about it on The Daily Show — and it's likely to be the most controversial. To be clear, the authors don't argue that global warming doesn't exist — they just don't think we need to cut back on fossil fuels in order to stop it. Rather, they champion a series of cool-sounding inventions like a hose that would squirt sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, blotting out just enough light to cool the earth. These plans sound interesting, and it's not clear whether the scientific and environmental communities are considering them seriously. Part of this lack of clarity may have to do with the fact that Levitt and Dubner portray Al Gore and everyone else who believes in carbon reduction as at best a bunch of stick-in-the-muds and at worst a cult. They write,

[T]he movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion. The core belief is that humankind inherited a pristine Eden, has sinned greatly by polluting it, and now must suffer lest we all perish in a fiery apocalypse.

In response to ideas like the sulfur dioxide hose, Levitt and Dubner quote Al Gore as saying, "I think it's nuts." It's unclear if that's all he had to say, or if he perhaps had an inkling that he was about to be portrayed as the "patron saint" of a misguided religion and decided to clam up. Whatever the case, it's hard to evaluate the "geoengineering" ideas the authors present because the larger scientific community doesn't get to have a say. The authors have a stake in appearing contrarian and cool, and they don't give much space to the lame-os who might disagree with them.

Levitt and Dubner write in their introduction that "we're trying to start a conversation, not have the last word." If their book really does spark a discussion about creative ways to reverse global warming — or to improve schools, for that matter — that will be all to the good. Unfortunately, right now Superfreakonomics looks like that very dangerous thing, a little bit of knowledge. Casual readers may pick it up, find out that women don't want higher wages and that a special hose will save the world, and assume that neither social nor environmental change is necessary. Because as much as Levitt and Dubner portray themselves as upstarts, many of their ideas just give people permission to behave as they always have. And as much as they claim to want to open a dialogue, they don't really give the other side its say.

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