Saturday, 24 May 2014

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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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