November 2009

Steven D. Dubner

Second ‘Freakonomics’ outing sparks controversy, conversation
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Even before it hit the bookstores, SuperFreakonomics was inciting scorn and outrage. That may have had something to do with its flashing-lights subtitle: “Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.” This verbal torrent virtually stampeded reviewers toward the juicy parts. The authors couldn’t have hoped for better publicity than seeing Paul Krugman denounce their climatological inferences the New York Times. Which he did.

Like its predecessor, Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics provides great conversational fodder about the immediate and longterm consequences of human actions, both great and small. The point that aroused Krugman’s ire was the book’s implication that the global-warning camp may be a tad alarmist and not always rigorously guided by science. In the same vein, the Center for Injury Research and Prevention assailed the book for questioning the superiority of child safety seats over regular seat belts in shielding children over two from serious injury. (The authors did, however, agree that safety seats are more effective than belts in preventing minor injuries.)

Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Dubner, an author and former editor at The New York Times Magazine, arrived at their conclusions by sifting through a host of research studies to glean insights about human behavior, its causes and effects. Their aim, they say was to “tell stories . . . that rely on accumulated data rather than on individual anecdotes, glaring anomalies, personal opinions, emotional outbursts, or moral leanings.” For example, they venture into why opening up the workplace to women may have led to a measurable decline in teacher quality and why children in utero during Ramadan seem especially susceptible to developmental defects. Accept them or not, the authors’ judgments are consistently thought provoking. BookPage got the chance to ask Stephen Dubner a few questions about the new book.

Early in the book you say, “We are trying to start a conversation, not have the last word?” What ends would you expect such a conversation to serve?
It would be nice if people could think about and discuss and act on things without operating from their preconceived notions.

Why does this book falls under the rubric of economics rather than, say, behavioral psychology? Is it your thesis that all human activity has an economic dimension?
Sure, if you mean by "economic dimension" that we all respond to incentives. But incentives, as we write all over the place, are hardly limited to financial ones.

What was the division of labor for this book? Who did what?
Levitt does the nouns and adverbs, and I do the verbs and adjectives. We quarrel over the prepositions. Well, really: it's a collaboration whose particulars depend very much on the section in question. Some are hybrids of Levitt's empirical research and my reporting and writing. Often we have long talks about how particular sections will be laid out, what works and what doesn't work. The idea is to blend analysis and non-fiction storytelling in a way that short shrifts neither the analysis nor the reading experience.

Given the many variables between outwardly similar situations, do you think history has any predictive power—as opposed to simply being a catalog of possibilities?
I love that question, though I'm not sure my answer is worthwhile. I guess I'd tend toward the "catalog of possibilities" idea, especially if you're talking about economic history. So much of the conversation after the recent financial and economic meltdown centered on predictions based on what had happened in past recessions and depressions—the vast majority of which of course failed to come true (so far, at least).

Are media as sensationalist as you suggest throughout, or are we just more attuned to sensational stories than we are blandly informative ones?
I think they are one and the same. Reporters are humans too, and stories that attract our attention attracted theirs first.

Did you have a system for ferreting out the studies you cite in the book? If so, how did it work?
A lot of the research we write about is, once again, Levitt's academic research, often done in concert with people whom we write about in the book, like John List, Sudhir Venkatesh, Craig Feied, Ian Horsley and others. But we also both spend a lot of time talking to people and hunting down other interesting research.

Did you amass much useful material that didn’t make it into this book?
Yes, quite a bit, but some chapters got too flabby, some stories just didn't gel, and so on.

Do you anticipate that the two of you will collaborate on other projects?
We've talked over a number of things, including future books, but nothing's decided now.

What’s your appraisal of Malcolm Gladwell’s use of the material you cited in your New York Times Magazine article about the “birth date bulge” and the origins of talent?
Malcolm's a wonderful writer. I think he could successfully rewrite the phone book—which, if you think about it, he kind of did in that great section in The Tipping Point about "connectors."

Have the conclusions the two of you reached in writing the Freakonomics books altered your behavior in any way or changed your views on how life should be lived?
Personally, I'd say that it's made me more optimistic in general. One major theme in SuperFreakonomics is that problems that seem virtually unsolvable inevitably do get solved, often by cheap and simple means, and often by someone or something that we weren't expecting.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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By Steven D. Dubner
ISBN 9780060889579

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