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Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

By Steven B. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
William Morrow, 2009

When reading Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s follow-up to their hugely successful Freakonomics, it’s difficult to avoid thinking of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was once confronted with a student’s paper that made him exclaim, “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.”

The quote strikes readers as funny because it seems so irascible. Surely if something isn’t right, it must be wrong? The idea that there could be a third category – an informational null set, as it were – especially for scientific or even pseudo-scientific writing, doesn’t seem possible.

But Pauli wasn’t just in a bad mood. That null set exists, and in the widening gap between the world’s growing body of knowledge and the world’s shrinking number of human beings who know any of that knowledge or care about any of it, there grows a null set as wide as an ocean. “Histories” of things like the pencil, the penis, and the color purple take bookstore shelf-space away from studies of the boring old Ottoman Empire; “studies” of things like happiness or orgasms (or the meeting of the twain) – where there is no correlative data except perhaps from the last fifteen minutes – are routinely published these days by people with advanced degrees after their names. Writing about stuff that doesn’t even rise to the level of being wrong is a booming business.

Levitt and Dubner ought to know: Freakonomics was virtually an instruction manual on how to do it. Certainly it was an incentive – the book, promising to explore “the hidden side of everything,” sold millions of copies, mostly to questing young businessmen who’ve felt for years that they were missing something and wondered if this book would tell them what it was (it didn’t; those young men are in fact missing their souls, which they sold when they decided to go straight from the fraternity to business school, thereby opting out of the whole ‘being human’ thing). Freakonomics wowed its readers with a series of seemingly counter-intuitive assertions the authors claimed they could verify with statistics. Each of the book’s little chapters wouldn’t have been out of place solemnly intoned by that faux-scholarly dude at the end of every college dorm floor, the one named Bode who always had good pot.

Our authors, keen trend-spotters that they are, have returned with a brightly-colored clone of Freakonomics titled Superfreakonomics and promising, well, more of the same (this from the book’s dust jacket):

How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?

Who adds more value: a pimp or a realtor?

Can eating kangaroos save the planet?

Can a sex change boost your salary?

You can see how you’re supposed to respond, right? “What? Eating kangaroos? But I thought … I mean, I always assumed … wow! Tell me more!” Superfreakonomics will sell like corn flakes. The question becomes: is there anything to all this?

The short answer is no. This is almost all puerile nonsense, an extended three-card monte game being played with pie charts. But it’s the “almost” that opens up the narrative a little, because “almost” forces you to look at the bits and pieces scattered at random throughout Superfreakonomics that aren’t, in fact, nonsense. In good conscience, we should all wonder how two authors providing so little steak are managing to sell so much sizzle to the reading public.

This book has a baker’s dozen major topics, including an exploration of the similarities between Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo (“Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo? What? But I thought … I mean, I always assumed … wow! Tell me more!”), but if we focus on any one of them for even a few serious, non-stoned minutes, the anatomy of the antic becomes clear – and perhaps some other, less innocent things become clear as well.

Take the part about Kitty Genovese.

The case will be familiar to readers of a certain age. In March of 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese returned home from work to Kew Gardens, Queens, around 3:15 in the morning. She parked her car in a lot behind her apartment and was chased and attacked by a man who stabbed her while she screamed for help. The attacker, Winston Moseley, temporarily retreated to his car while Genovese staggered to the door of a nearby building. Then Moseley returned, sexually assaulted Genovese, and fatally stabbed her.

The New York Times made the Kitty Genovese murder famous by focusing on their own report that thirty-eight witnesses in the apartment building overlooking the scene of the stabbings watched and did nothing, neither intervening nor calling the police. “How on earth,” our authors ask,

could thirty-eight people stand by and watch as their neighbor was brutalized? Yes, economists always talk about how self-interested we are, but doesn’t this demonstration of self-interest practically defy logic? Does our apathy really run so deep?

Without right off answering their own question (and without explaining why such self-interest would defy logic in the first place, since it obviously wouldn’t), Levitt and Dubner launch off on a windy digression about altruism, various experiments, lots of half-cooked factoids and figurines about TV and the FCC and violent crime statistics and various studies of altruism. Only 30 pages later do they return to the subject of Kitty Genovese, and that’s when they get around to informing their readers that the Times report of the incident was riddled with errors. The original headline-grabbing report painted a picture of thirty-eight people wide awake and watching with bored complacency at 3 in the morning while a young woman got raped and stabbed to death; in reality, about half a dozen very sleepy people managed to get blurry, hurried glimpses of what was happening, and one of those people yelled out “Leave that girl alone!” At least two others did, in fact, call the police. True, nobody rushed out in their pajamas to grapple with the knife-wielding attacker, but contrary to what was originally reported (and then related at great detail in this book), many of the witnesses did something. So what was the point of rehashing the whole subject in this way, first solemnly repeating the original straw man, then digressing for so long about the mysteries of altruism, then finishing things up by solemnly informing the reader that the original reporting was almost entirely wrong, then maddeningly writing:

Now, considering the various incentives at play, which is more unbelievable: the De May-Hoffman version of events [refuting the Times account and tracing down the police calls that were made, etc.] or the conventional wisdom that a whole neighborhood of people stood around and watched, refusing to help, as a man murdered a woman?

Again, what is the point of all this idiotic treadmill-running? It wasn’t “conventional wisdom” that had an apartment building (not “a whole neighborhood”) stand around and watch a murder, it was a sloppy, sensationalistic bit of newspaper reporting … which Levitt and Dubner themselves have just revealed to be wrong in almost every particular. Which is more unbelievable? What the hell kind of a question is that? One account is demonstrably false – there is no tenable comparison here, no actual contrast between anything and anything else. The Kitty Genovese case as it was originally reported serves our authors as a perfect object lesson in human selfishness, the perfect jumping-off point for a bloated discourse on various aspects of altruism – but the original reporting was provably false, as our authors duly report, so it no longer serves as any kind of a lesson, except maybe in bad reporting. Levitt and Dubner were talking about altruism, though, and the whole thing winds up being, as a reading experience, a waste of time. As a discussion of human selfishness, this isn’t at all right. And it isn’t even wrong.

Two friends confront each other. One says to the other, “See, this is why all your arguments are basically hypocritical – because you’re a Mennonite. You simply can’t hold any of your positions if you’re a Mennonite.” The other replies, “I’m not a Mennonite. That’s Ollie you’re thinking about.” The first friend says, “Oh. You’re right.” The two then walk in separate directions, mutually puzzled. Superfreakonomics strikes again!

Or maybe what Levitt and Dubner are really getting at here really is bad reporting. Certainly at first that seems to be the biggest bee in their bonnet when addressing another topic altogether, the media-dubbed “Summer of the Shark” in 2001. The two replay the increasingly excited news coverage that a spate of shark attacks that summer received in the press, then they take their statistical bats to yet another piñata:

During the entire year of 2001, around the world there were just 68 shark attacks, of which 4 were fatal.

Not only are these numbers far lower than the media hysteria implied; they were also no higher than in earlier years or in the years to follow. Between 1995 and 2005, there were on average 60.3 worldwide shark attacks each year, with a high of 79 and a low of 46. There were an average of 5.9 fatalities per year, with a high of 11 and a low of 3. In other words, the headlines during the summer of 2001 might just as easily have read “Shark Attacks About Average This Year.” But that probably wouldn’t have sold many magazines.

No, that wouldn’t have sold many magazines – but it also wouldn’t have been true, at least not in one sense of the word. And this is one of the problems at the heart of Superfreakonomics and its super-selling predecessor: the book is dumb as a post about the nature of truth. Simple conversation with a couple of other human beings on Earth might help fix this (or, alternately, taking in a few late-night Law & Order reruns), but such an exercise might interfere with their rather inordinate penchant for cheery sloganeering:

We have therefore done our best to tell stories in this book that rely on accumulated data rather than on individual anecdotes, glaring anomalies, personal opinions, emotional outbursts, or moral leanings. Some people may argue that statistics can be made to say anything, to defend indefensible causes or tell pet lies. But the economic approach aims for the opposite: to address a given topic with neither fear nor favor, letting numbers speak the truth. We don’t take sides.

The problem here isn’t that numbers seldom speak the truth – it’s that numbers never speak the truth. Numbers are bricks; they neither know nor care about the uses to which they’re put. They don’t speak at all without human interpreters. Statistics can be made to serve any purpose, and when Levitt and Dubner assert that they themselves aren’t twisting the numbers to push an agenda, they themselves are telling their own pet lie.

Like with the Summer of the Shark. In 2001 there were indeed 68 reported shark attacks worldwide, and four of them were indeed fatal. Both those figures were considerably lower than, for instance, those of 2000, when there were 79 attacks and 11 fatalities. And other years have indeed been comparable in terms of raw numbers.

But the Summer of the Shark still happened. On 6 July a boy swimming off the Florida coast had his arm bitten off by a bull shark. On 7 August, a man lost his leg to a shark in the Bahamas. On 20 August, six people in Florida were bitten by sharks in less than an hour. On 26 August a Florida surfer was bitten by a shark. On 2 September a boy was killed by a shark off the coast of Virginia. Two days after that, a man was killed and his wife critically injured by a shark in the North Carolina surf. These things might fall into worldwide statistics in a fairly orderly way – shark attacks fairly average, and all that – but the fact remains that not only was such a concentration of attacks (and such a percentage of fatalities) unusual for the southern littoral of North America, it was completely unprecedented in the history of shark attack record-keeping for that area.

Despite what Levitt and Dubner imply, the U.S. media weren’t “hysterical” to report a “Summer of the Shark” in 2001 instead of, say, 2009. The reporting followed the attacks, and nobody invented all that blood in the water. Levitt and Dubner see that reporting, notice how excited it was, and reflexively do their one and only trick: they quick-shuffle some statistics to undermine a received opinion about something. They don’t have to do this too many times in Superfreakonomics before you get the clear impression that delivering that dorm-floor disillusioning little shock is the whole point of their enterprise. Give them a fact, any fact you’re comfortable stating, and they’ll whip up some pie charts to “demonstrate” how wrong it is. Hey, did you know kangaroo farts don’t contain any greenhouse gases like methane? So, like, if we all ate ‘roo burgers instead of ‘moo’ burgers, we’d, like, totally turn around global warming! Not offered as a serious alternative to anything, anything at all – just meant to undermine your certainty about global warming in general. Not really truthful, and not really untruthful – not right, and not even wrong. Just partially refined book club-friendly stoner bullshit.

Only with a slightly darker ancestry. Because the worst part of Superfreakonomics isn’t that our authors don’t seem to understand that truth can change shape and size under different, equally valid perspectives – the worst part by far is the fact that the persistent implication of their books is the exact opposite of that grandiose little proclamation about letting numbers speak the truth. Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics don’t tell their many, many readers to trust in numbers and logic – they warn everybody that no matter what they think they know, it’s probably wrong. It’s not glaring anomalies and emotional outbursts they want readers to distrust – it’s expertise.

And we’ve seen that before, haven’t we? The collaboration that gave rise to these books began during the presidency of George W. Bush, a 21st century president who said the ‘jury’s still out’ on the theory of evolution and for eight years proudly displayed his scorn for science, facts, and expertise. A man with a dimly-lit, poorly-organized imagination and a taste for the insular gossip of the small town barbershop would very much like the shocking little undermining Leavitt and Dubner do to. Readers are clearly meant to imitate the authors’ tricks of subverting every certainty, distrusting every set of facts, and grooving to the disorientation of never really knowing anything. Such tricks can be mildly amusing (and, published in hardcover, extremely lucrative), they’re neither right nor wrong – they’re just fairly numbskulled wastes of time. The 2008 election repudiated the smug ignorance of the Bush years in favor of a clear-eyed grappling with fact and nuance. Maybe in their next book, Levitt and Dubner will put aside fear or favor and try that trick. It’s a side worth taking.

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Arthur Brock is a former newspaperman and freelancer living in Sarasota, Florida. This is his first piece for Open Letters.

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