Book review – Superfreakonomics

Freakonomics was an entertaining book of the Malcolm Gladwell variety … unintended consequences of decisions that were borne out by careful statistics gathering made for a quick, interesting, and ultimately, very successful read.  Some years later, we've been given Superfreakonomics.  Being a sequel, the audience should be naturally expecting more of the same.

I'll just state it up front … this book feels like a cash in.  While I found most of the stories I read in Freakonomics to be original, Superfreakonomics has very little in the way of a common theme.  Furthermore, the book devolves from Freakonomics in that it seems to simply talk about interesting stories or experiments.  Most of these have hardly anything to do with economics, experimentation, or carefully selected statistical measurement whatsoever.

A couple of experiments and anecdotes are ridiculously sloppy … for example, studies on the male-female wage gap are considered, and then examples of transgendered subjects are used to change gender while holding other things constant.  I can't even begin to explain how obviously invalid such a "control' would be.  They do acknowledge this somewhat … but then why even bring it up?  It's useless data for a book.

Rehashing old news happens a lot in this book.  For example, the Milgram experiments are discussed, and so are the negative effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The Kitty Genovese murder is discussed as well, albeit in more detail than we typically get and leading to a conclusion a little less cynical than one normally gets out of the subject (the reporters might have manufactured the unhelpfulness of the residents to generate outrage).

That isn't to say I didn't read some interesting things in this book.  We see that teaching monkeys how currency works is possible, and then we learn that the male monkeys eventually start using this currency to pay female monkeys for sex. Oops, I spoiled the ending.  We also learn that kids who are born at such an age that they are oldest right when baseball season starts have a dispropotionate likelihood of being picked.  This continues on a self-reinforcing cycle throughout their later years.  We get a whole slough of interesting data on the economics of prostitution, including a fairly convincing argument that pimps provide more relative value than realtors.

Anyway, to wrap up here … you will learn some interesting things from this book if you read it.  It just doesn't seem in the same vein as Freakonomics.  And you can easily finish it in an afternoon if you're a quick read, so it won't be a total waste.

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