A Skeptical Reader on SuperFreakonomics

by Kim on March 25, 2011 · 26 comments

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For my big road trip home last weekend, I picked out Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s book SuperFreakonomics as an audio book for my car ride. When I grabbed it at the library, I was pretty skeptical about whether it would be any good, but within just an hour of listening I felt like most of my initial concerns were allayed pretty convincingly.

In fact, all of my notes on the book start out something like, “This was more funny than I expected!” or “Wow, economics is more understandable than I thought it would be!” The entire listening experience felt like I was constantly reassuring the Skeptical Reader in my head that the book was going to be good.

If I, a healthy lover of nonfiction, had so many questions about the book, I thought other readers might too. Hence, a Q&A about SuperFreakonomics between a Skeptical Reader and myself.

Skeptical Reader: Is it necessary to read Freakonomics before taking on SuperFreakonomics?

Kim: I don’t think so, but it’s hard for me to say. SuperFreakonomics does make a number of passing references to the first book, along the lines of, “Remember the cheating sumo wrestlers?” but I don’t think they’re such important references it makes reading the first book a necessity. Boyfriend and I did recently watched the documentary version of Freakonomics on Netflix, so I knew vaguely what they were talking about. If you’re concerned but short on time, check out the documentary, otherwise I think you can dive right in.

Skeptical Reader: I don’t know anything about economics. Is this book going to be too hard for me?

Kim: Absolutely not. In fact, I think this book is probably most enjoyable for people without much of a background in economics or who don’t know much about how economic research works precisely because Dubner and Levitt work so hard to use as little jargon as possible. And when they do use jargon, it’s often with a memorable example — pimps and prostitutes or capitalist monkeys — that makes the definition stick in a workable way.

In fact, I think my favorite part about this book is the fact that Dubner and Levitt were able to expand my idea of what economics research can cover. As they explain it, economics is not just about money and the economy — it’s a different way of looking at an issue and defining a problem. The book is an exercise in economic thinking, re-framing complicated issues into questions of incentives and statistics. It’s a different way of looking at the world, and one they make a good case for supporting.

Skeptical Reader: But isn’t economics boring? Will this book make me fall asleep?

Kim: Well, economics might be boring, but the way it’s presented in this book certainly isn’t. At some points, Dubner and Levitt might suffer from actually being too entertaining — they have a way of presenting their research or next argument in the most controversial sounding way possible — “A surprising victim of the feminist revolution is children!” or “Terrorism is civic engagement on steroids!” Of course, you have to keep listening after they say something like that, but often the conclusion of the research isn’t quite as crazy as they made you think it will be.

The one problem I had with the book was with organization. It’s very front-heavy on the entertainment factor, starting with the economics of prostitution and terrorism, then shifting to more innocuous topics like medical records, hand washing, and global warming. I thought the last sections were interesting, but they didn’t have the pizazz of the opening chapters, meaning they felt like a letdown in comparison. They might have seemed more interesting if the book had been arranged slightly differently.

Skeptical Reader: I saw the book is read by one of the authors, Steven J. Dubner. Was he any good?

Kim: Oh yes, definitely. Sometimes when authors read their own writing, it’s annoying because, really, authors are not voice actors. In this case, Dubner is actually quite good, and there’s some abstract feeling of nerdiness listening to him try not to laugh at the dorky economics jokes in the book as he read them. I don’t think Dubner takes anything away from the book as a narrator, and in fact might add a little bit to the experience of listening.

Rating: ★★★★☆

So that’s that! Other skeptical readers out there: do you have any other questions about SuperFreakonomics? Leave them in the comments!

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

rhapsodyinbooks March 25, 2011 at 7:16 am

I love this format! And the questions are perfect !

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Kim March 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm

rhapsodyinbooks: Thank you! I like finding ways to change up my review format, and this one was fun.

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Trisha March 25, 2011 at 7:57 am

What a great way to review a book! You definitely hit some of my concerns about reading Freakonomics. :)

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Kim March 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Trisha: Thank you! Boyfriend has mentioned Freakonomics to me many times, but I’d not made an effort to read it until finding the audio book at the library.

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Joy Weese Moll March 25, 2011 at 10:36 am

Fun review! My nephew really liked Freakonomics (surprising himself, I think).

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Kim March 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Joy Weese Moll: My brother told me he read Freakonomics for an economics class, and he liked it more than expected as well.

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Teresa March 25, 2011 at 10:50 am

Great review. I’ve been meaning to read Freakonomics. I’ll have to add this one to my list as well.

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Kim March 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Teresa: I thought this was quite fun, and it made me want to read Freakonomics too.

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Kailana March 25, 2011 at 10:55 am

I have been kind of curious about these books, but haven’t gone passed that yet. Maybe soon…

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Kim March 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Kailana: I think they’re worth taking a looking at. I enjoyed listening to it.

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nomadreader (Carrie) March 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm

If you liked this one, then you will LOVE the original. I’m not an economics person either, but I love their interdisciplinary approach.

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Kim March 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm

nomadreader: Excellent. I have some other trips this summer. I’ll have to see if Freakonomics is on audio book as well.

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Lisa March 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm

I’ve heard these guys on the radio and they really do make economics something that everyone can “get” and make it sound so interesting. And yet, I’ve never picked up their books. Sounds like I need to rectify that!

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Kim March 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Lisa: I liked that they were able to made economics seem accessible. That’s important.

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philip Weiss March 26, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Are the things they wrote correct?

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Kim March 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm

philip: I’m not an economist, but their points seemed logical to me. I disagreed with some of their conclusions about global warming, but I got the sense that both authors welcomed discussion and critique of both their methods and conclusions.

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Belle Wong March 26, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Yes, very nice review format. I index a LOT of economics books, and the funny, engaging ones have been far and few between (although, in their defence, they’re almost all for first year university students, basic 101 stuff). This actually sounds like a book I’d enjoy!

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Kim March 27, 2011 at 11:03 am

Belle: Economics can be a tough subject, especially when the idea of it ends up limited to the economy or other big money issues. I liked the way the authors broadened the idea of what economics can be, and pointed out it can be a way of thinking about things that have very little to do with money.

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Jeanne March 27, 2011 at 3:34 pm

My daughter liked the first one, and I just asked her if I should read it, after reading this review and telling her about the second (she said yes, of course).

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Kim March 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Jeanne: I hope you enjoy them! I wasn’t a very critical reader of the book, since I was listening while driving, but I can definitely say it kept me entertained and thinking.

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Erin March 27, 2011 at 6:26 pm

I recently listened to a few of the authors’ podcasts, which I found surprisingly interesting. (I’m skeptical, too!) I’m always looking for a good audiobook, and one that teaches me something interesting is extra good. I’ll have to hunt down a copy of (Super)Freakonomics!

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Kim March 28, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Erin: I didn’t know they did podcasts. I’ll have to investigate. I suspect if you liked podcasts you’d like the book on audio — it felt a lot like some of the podcasts I’ve listened to in the past.

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Hideki (aka jacksan1) September 11, 2011 at 5:47 am

In the original Freakonomics the authors discussed patterns of win-loss records in the Japanese sumo tournaments and pointed out that they had observed a very palpable pattern of match-fixing. A couple of years after the book came out, Japan got rocked by specific revelations of just that, with a number of wrestlers and their “stablemasters” ‘fessing up to deliberately throwing matches. Such fraud had been rumored in the sumo world for years and years, but no one had before this been able to conclusively prove it. And the way the matches had been thrown was found to be so amazingly in line with what the Freaknomics guys had claimed as being nonrandom. Confessions established that sumo matches were indeed being deliberately tossed at certain win-loss patterns that the authors had said they were.

In this instance, Freaknomics showed that its content was not just interesting or funny, but also was objective, astute, and most importantly, correct. I would not be surprised if other observations of the book did also check out to be true, if they have not already.

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Kim September 11, 2011 at 8:38 am

I totally agree. I’ve no doubt some of their findings would be proven or found to be true with more investigation. This book made really compelling cases for their arguments.

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