Posts Tagged ‘Stephen J. Dubner’

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

September 10, 2010

After having it on my shelf for quite a while, I finally sat down and read Superfreakonomics; Levitt and Dubner’s follow-up to their bestselling book Freakonomics. Superfreakonomics is laid out much the same way as Freakonomics was, although less time is spent on declearing Levitt to be a genius.  However, with chapter titles as How is a street prostitute like a department-store santa?, Why should suicide bombers buy life insurance?, and What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?, the similarity to Freakonomics is unmistakeable. The similarity also makes Superfreakonomics feel like an act of duty more than a work of inspiration.

Just like John Whitehead, I enjoyed Freakonomics more than I did Superfreakonomics. I also agree with Whitehead that the highlight is the epilog on monkeys learning to use money. Levitt and Dubner do a great job, however, coming up with surprising conclusions:

This is a strange twist. Many of the best and brightest womenin the United States get an MBA so they can earn high wages, but they end up marrying the best and brightest men, who also earn high wages which affords these women the luxury of not having to work so much (p. 46).*

So, perhaps there’s more to getting an MBA than high wages? Bright men, for example. Next, do what you want to do:

Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. The people who become excellent at a given thing aren’t necessarily the same ones who seemed to be “gifted” at a young age. This suggest that when it comes to choosing a life path, people should do what they love […] because if you don’t love what you’re doing, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good at it (p. 61).

Partly beg to differ. I think many of those really good at something (like, world-class-good), at least has to begin practicing at an early age.

Other amusing and at times unsettling conclusions are that death rates in Los Angeles drop when doctors go on strike (p. 81), in Singapore they have the the Manitenance of Parents Act (p. 106), economists believe more in theory than in the real world (“Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”, p. 115), the Endangered Species Act endanger rather than protect species (p. 139), buying locally produced food increases greenhouse-gas emissions (p. 167), and the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion (p. 169).

Perhaps the most controversial part of the book is the chapter on global warming, where Levitt and Dubner embrace geoengineering as the short-term solution. The noise around the chapter was seemingly so annoying to someone that critical posts on the Freakonomics blog were removed (see here, for example). Among the disturbing claims Levitt and Dubner provide is that climate scientists ‘turn their knobs’ such that their model do not provide outlier estimates, because an outlier model is hard to get funded. The economic reality of research funding generate a scientific consensus, rather than independent research (p. 182). The claim ressonates with a seminar I recently attended. The seminar was given by a Danish climate scientist who were concerned that the famous hockey stick graph, hailed as the undisputable proof of man-made climate change, resulted from lack of data, inappropriate methods, and an assumed stable temperature prior to the industiral revolution. The discussion in Superfreakonomics do, however, seem fairly balanced in places, see for example the discussion on page 199.

I would recommend Superfreakonomics to anyone unfamiliar with Freakonomics, but, honestly, it’s a Freakonomics 2, and not any more super than it’s predecessor, which is, notwithstanding, quite superb. Superfreakonomics is perhaps an easier read (or I’ve become a better and quicker reader), but lacks a character like Sudhir Venkatesh.

* Page numbers refer to the Allen Lane UK edition.

The Purpose of Economics

June 3, 2009

The purpose of economics is, according to Gary Becker (a Chicago economist), ‘to understand and alleviate poverty.’ Levitt, at Freakonomics, writes

What’s surprising about Becker’s comment — and I believe he is telling the truth and not just being politically correct when he says helping the poor is the point of economics, because he never worries about political correctness — is that he is a staunch Republican and a firm believer in markets. There is no reason why that belief in markets can’t go hand in hand with really wanting to help the poor, it just usually doesn’t.

In a market economy, there are inevitably winners and losers. So most folks who worry about the poor are turned off by markets, believing that some other system could do a better job for the worst off. Becker, however, would argue that markets, especially when combined with access to good education, are the best shot the poor have.

In another Freakonomics post, Dubner discusses Becker’s idea of ‘the economic approach,’ where he somewhat surprisingly concludes that almost all deaths are suicides!

Unintended Consequences of the Endangered Species Act

May 15, 2009

I’ve posted on research on the Endangered Species Act earlier. Yesterday, Freakonomics’s Stephen J. Dubner mentioned an earlier post of theirs which discusses the unintended consequences of it (Dubner draws a parallel to other protective laws with similar unintended consequences):

Consider the Endangered Species Act (E.S.A.) of 1973, which protects flora and fauna as well as their physical habitats. The economists Dean Lueck and Jeffrey Michael wanted to gauge the E.S.A.’s effect on the red-cockaded woodpecker, a protected bird that nests in old-growth pine trees in eastern North Carolina. By examining the timber harvest activity of more than 1,000 privately owned forest plots, Lueck and Michael found a clear pattern: when a landowner felt that his property was turning into the sort of habitat that might attract a nesting pair of woodpeckers, he rushed in to cut down the trees. It didn’t matter if timber prices were low.

This happened less than two years ago in Boiling Spring Lakes, N.C. “Along the roadsides,” an A.P. article reported, “scattered brown bark is all that’s left of once majestic pine stands.” As sad as this may be, it isn’t surprising to anyone who has examined the perverse incentives created by the E.S.A. In their paper, Lueck and Michael cite a 1996 developers’ guide from the National Association of Home Builders: “The highest level of assurance that a property owner will not face an E.S.A. issue is to maintain the property in a condition such that protected species cannot occupy the property.”


In a new working paper that examines the plight of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, the economists John List, Michael Margolis and Daniel Osgood found that landowners near Tucson rushed to clear their property for development rather than risk having it declared a safe haven for the owl. The economists make the argument for “the distinct possibility that the Endangered Species Act is actually endangering, rather than protecting, species.”

The article concludes: “…if there is any law more powerful than the ones constructed in a place like Washington, it is the law of unintended consequences.”

Stay tuned and I will use that exact quote from the List, Margolis and Osgood paper in my own research!

Related post:

Wikipedia vs. Public Restrooms, and Social Knowledge

April 12, 2009

The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.

The words belong to Robert McHenry, a former editor in chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. I found the quote in David Weinberger’s book ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ (p. 132). The quote is taken from an article McHenry wrote on back in 2004. I’m sure it makes interesting reading. 2004 is five (5!) years ago, however, and a lot has happened since then.

Another skeptic towards Wikipedia is (or, was) Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics; he discovered himself on a list of well-known economists. That was 2005, however, and Dubner’s skepticism has faded (if my memory serves me right, that is; I’m sure he mentioned his newly won trust in Wikipedia somewhere, but I wasn’t able to find it; I need a backward-link seeking tool to find entries linking to the post I link to above, because it was when he mentioned his new view of Wikipedia he linked to the old post with his Wikipedia skepticism I found that; confusing I know, but it’s not important, so just forget about it).

Wikipedia may be great, but it also may be wrong from time to time. To know, you need to find out whether an entry is disputed or not. If it is, I’m sure the relevant discussion page suffices to make sure what is trustworthy and what is not, and eventually what side of the dispute you want to sympathize with. However, if the subject is a bit odd, Wikipedia may be wrong and still not disputed because so few people ever looks up the entry.

So, can Wikipedia be trusted on the big, important entries, but not the small ones? When is an entry big; when is it small? My conclusion is that Wikipedia may be a good starting point, but usually I rely on Wikipedia to take me somewhere else, to ‘real’ sources. Wikipedia doesn’t feel real to me, but it collects threads to a lot of real stuff.

The old rule of not relying on only one source remains. Paradoxically, Wikipedia, which is generated from innumerable sources, needs to be checked towards different sources before one can rely on it.

Weinberger concludes his section containing the McHenry quote with the following sentence:

Knowledge – its content and its organization – is becoming a social act [p.133].

I twisted when I read that. When was knowledge, its content and organization, not social? I’m certain dear Deirdre wrote somewhere (probably in ‘The Rhetoric of Economics’) that research is social; research is supposed to produce science, and if we’re strict about knowledge, it comes from science. Not all kinds of knowledge, for sure, but certainly the kind Weinberger is talking about. Research IS social. It’s not objective; it’s colored by the subjects involved and the social environment they do their research in. What Weinberger tries to tell us, I think, is that more people may take part in the process he calls knowledge (the social act). No initial requirements to participate are necessary, or rather, requirements (I’m thinking education; position; image) doesn’t matter, or matter less. Whether that is a good thing or not, I haven’t yet decided.

Related post:

New Words

October 14, 2008

There’s a post on new words on the Freakonomics blog. (Posted by Stephen J. Dubner a while ago.) I don’t know if I have anything sensible to say about it; I just thought it was funny. I don’t have any new English words, I’m afraid. (I did come up with a word that those present (in a bar) had not heard before while in the US, however; I said I wanted a more ‘draftish’ beer. On another note I’m looking for words that does not exists all the time at, but that does not mean I’ve invented new words if you know what I mean.)

I have some Norwegian words that would be new to most people, though. How about ‘skræta’? Or ‘nirda’? I don’t know how these words came about, suddenly all my friends were using them. (If I’m not mistaken, none of my friends really know how the words came about either.) The words were used as substitutes for body parts young males tend to refer to a lot. A word I participated in giving a new dimension, if not necessarily a new meaning, is the word ‘slum’ (Norwegian for getto; poor neighborhood) (a more appropriate spelling would be ‘sluum’, which actually would make it a new word, but that would maybe be cheating). A situation is ‘slum’ when it is uncomfortable, tiresome,  boring or otherwise bad in some sense.

My wife has come up with a new word, by the way. ‘Beintmålar’ is another word for the instrument you use when checking that something is horizontal (Norwegian: Vater). A great word, I think. Anyone else?