Book Review: Superfreakonomics

I had some spare time at an airport, and happened to pick up Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I haven’t read Freakonomics (I do plan to now) and didn’t know what to expect. I found the book to be an interesting read. It covers a wide range of topics – too many to list - but does so in an engaging and often witty way. The variety in topics makes this a particularly difficult book to review and I will not make any attempt to cover or even mention most of the contents.

Chapter 1 deals with prostitution. The authors write

Since time immemorial and all over the world, men have wanted more sex than they could get for free. So what inevitably emerges is a supply of women who, for the right price, are willing to satisfy this demand.

Interesting. I hadn’t encountered this description before. A few pages further down, the authors note that the prostitute’s wage has fallen drastically over time and attribute it to the change in sexual mores that has resulted in “competition for the prostitute” – any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free. The authors write

If prostitution were a typical industry, it might have hired lobbyists to fight against the encroachment of premarital sex. They would have pushed to have premarital sex criminalized or, at the very least, heavily taxed.

That is just hilarious. I wonder if the social conservatives (in India and abroad) who preach abstinence, oppose the mixing of the sexes etc. realize that they are promoting prostitution.

Chapter 3 – titled Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism – was the one I found most interesting. The authors describe experiments conducted by economists in the 80s to measure altruism. The typical experiment involved two players, one of whom was given a sum of money with the choice to keep all of it or give any part of it to the other player. Players gave 20% of their money on average. The experimenters took this as proof of altruism. The authors then describe experiments by John List. List conducted the same experiment – called the Dictator game – with some variants. In the first variant, the player given the money ($20) was given the choice to give the other player any part of it or take $1 from the other player. Only half the number of people who had given money in the original version now gave money. In the second variant, the player making the decision was told that the other player was also given the same amount of money. The choice offered was to take the entire amount from the other player or to give any portion of her own money. In this variant, only 10% of the players gave money while more than 40% took all of the other player’s money. In the final variant, both players had to work for their money with the choice being the same as in the previous variant. In this variant two-thirds of the players neither gave nor took any money while 28% took the other player’s money. The authors note “It [the final variant of the experiment] suggests that when a person comes into some money honestly and believes that another person has done the same, she neither gives away what she earned nor takes what doesn’t belong to her.”

It should be obvious that any of the experimenters could have tried the twists that List used. In fact, without such twists, the experiments look quite weak. Yet they did not do so over a period of two decades. That indicates that the experiments’ motivation was a desire to find proof for hard-wired altruism rather a simple scientific enquiry.

After discussing a few factors that might influence the outcomes of such experiments such as selection bias – the people who volunteer to play along are more likely to be cooperative, the effect of scrutiny and the absence of a real-world context, the authors write

If John List’s research proves anything, it’s that a question like “Are people innately altruistic?” is the wrong kind of question to ask. People aren’t “good” or “bad”. People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated – for good or ill – if only you find the right levers.
So are human beings capable of generous, selfless, even heroic behavior? Absolutely. Are they also capable of heartless acts of apathy? Absolutely.

I disagree with the authors but that is a subject for another post. Meanwhile, there several interesting questions worth considering. Were the experimenters really measuring altruism (or its lack, in the case of List) at all? Do such experimental results justify conclusions of the form that the experimenters drew – human beings are hardwired for altruism? If not, what would be required to establish (or reject) ahypothesis that a certain kind of behavior is hardwired?

Chapters 4 describes how several problems that were once thought of as difficult or unsurmountable have been solved very effectively at a low cost. As one instance, the authors write of how the simple practice of doctors disinfecting their hands before treating patients saved innumerable lives. It seems awful that doctors were/are responsible for easily avoidable deaths. It seems even more awful that doctors resisted and still resist policies that require them to wash/disinfect their hands. My reaction was – how could they be so negligent when the cost (potentially lost human lives) is so high? A little reflection shows that such negligence is not uncommon at all in any profession. Washing hands is after all a boring, time consuming act and its consequences (prevention of infection) are not apparant at all by their very nature. A parallel example from the field of software is writing tests – also a boring, time-consuming act whose consequences are not apparant. Is the cost of not writing tests as high as the cost of not washing hands? Again, it is doesn’t seems so, but in a world where the use of software is all-pervasive, it might even be higher. This is a good lesson in looking beyond the obvious.

Chapter 5 is about global warming and how there might be a cheap and simple solution to the problem – injecting sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere. But don’t expect anyone to try it (or be allowed to try it). I find the whole issue of global warming extremely boring – I don’t think I have a single post on it here. But I suspect that the contents of this one chapter – less than a fifth of the book – will dominate most reactions to this book.

Overall, the book is a collection of a large number of interesting and thought-provoking analyses and anecdotes and the attitude of the authors is refreshingly healthy.

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