Skip to main content

Super Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner *****

This review is written a long time after the book came out, but after reviewing Levitt & Dubner’s latest, I realised we had never had a review of their second book.
As with the phenomenally successful Freakonomics, what we have here is a very clever application of the tools of economics (in effect, mostly statistics, though with some more explicitly economic aspects) to a range of surprising problem areas from prostitution (more explanatory than preventative) to climate change. The aim is to show that the ‘common sense’ view isn’t always the most helpful, and the authors prove this in spades.
From the classic discovery that many deaths were caused in maternity hospitals by doctors not washing their hands, to the apparently bizarre statistic that national level youth football players tend to be born in the first three months of the year (it’s to do with the time of year the cut-off birth date to qualify is applied) it is entertaining and thought provoking throughout. I especially liked the section on climate change, where the authors addressed the uncertainty in ways that really is rarely done by climate scientists, and looked at some surprisingly cheap and cheerful solutions.
I think the only sections I have slight issue with are the parts on child car seats and walking drunks. The child seat issue is portrayed in headline as child seats being ineffective, where the data does show benefit in terms of injury rates. The authors do still make an important point, though, that things would be a lot better if the seats were easy to fit properly. On walking drunks, we are told that by examining in the number of people killed while drunk driving and the number killed while walking drunk, it is actually safer, per mile to drink drive than walk home when drunk. But this grossly oversimplifies the situation, as drinkers aren’t in a simple binary split of sober/drunk. I’d suggest the majority of people who leave a party having consumed too much alcohol to legally drive are not drunk, and not liable to fall in front of a car.
Relatively minor quibbles, though about a fascinating book.
Paperback:  
Kindle version:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…