The Null Device

Superfreakonomics

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, have a sequel coming out next week; titled, naturally, Superfreakonomics, it looks like the same winning blend of insights, economic detective stories and at times glib reductionism:
Thus in the new book we learn, for example, that more deaths are caused per mile, in America at least, from drunk walking than drunk driving – so when you drive to a party and get plastered, it's not necessarily a wise decision to leave the car and walk home. We discover that female emergency-room doctors are slightly better at keeping their patients alive than male ones, and that Hezbollah suicide bombers, far from being the poorest of the poor, with nothing to lose, tend to be wealthier and better-educated than the average Lebanese person. There's an artful takedown of the fashionable "locavore" movement: transportation, Levitt and Dubner argue, accounts for such a small part of food's carbon footprint that buying all-local can make matters worse, because small farms use energy less efficiently than big ones.
Their mission to explain the world through numbers alone can give Superfreakonomics an oddly detached feel: major social issues are addressed, then instantly reduced to a statistical parlour game. An interesting section on the transactions between pimps and prostitutes, for example, shows that working with a pimp confers great financial advantages: they're much more helpful to prostitutes than estate agents are to house-sellers, for a start. But it neglects to consider the notion that there might, just possibly, be some negative aspects to the pimp-prostitute relationship. (The authors, apparently aware that they have made it look as if selling sex is the business plan to beat all others, add a helpful clarification: "Certainly, prostitution isn't for every woman.")

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