December 11, 2009

Reviews of Books I Didn't Read: SuperFreakonomics

I've been skimming a few books at the book store. Here's one:
SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

It must annoy U. of Chicago economist Levitt -- in a fuming all the way to the bank kinda way -- that he gets compared to Malcolm Gladwell a lot, when anybody just flipping idly through their respective books ought to be able to notice that Levitt is a lot smarter.

My impression after a half hour is that SuperFreakonomics is very competently done. I didn't see anything implausible, in contrast to the way you can't read Gladwell for 3 minutes without stumbling upon something that sounds just plain wrong. (SuperFreakonomics elicited much angry response because it expresses some skepticism about Climate Change dogma, but I don't know anything about climate, so I skipped those parts.)

Really, the appropriate comparison isn't Levitt to Gladwell, it's Dubner to Gladwell. Dubner is better with words than numbers, so he found somebody who is better with numbers than with words to team up with. Dubner doesn't make anywhere near as much money as Gladwell does winging it alone, but Dubner's not making himself into a laughing stock either.

Yet, from my idiosyncratic point of view, SuperFreakonomics seemed a little dull. I learned, for example, that prostitution offers a convenient way for lazy women to earn a living. But I didn't see anything on topics of much interest to me. For example, Levitt's work with Roland Fryer isn't mentioned in the index.

Now that I think about it, that might be intentional. Consider it from Levitt's point of view. He's a rational, risk-averse economist. He knows his book will make a lot of money no matter what he puts in it. So, maybe Levitt figured, "What do I need Heckman and Sailer punching holes in my reputation for, anyway? I'll just stay away from subjects where they know more than I do, and we'll all be happy."

In contrast, Gladwell has a natural born kamikaze pilot's instinct for lashing back at criticism from exactly the wrong people: "Pinker? Murray? Posner? Sailer? Bring 'em on!"

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

32 comments:

Vernunft said...

I know you've taken Mr. Gladwell to the woodshed expertly but it seems a little immodest to put yourself in that group - Posner? Pinker? These dudes are hardcore.

Steve Sailer said...

Hey, it was Gladwell who lumped me with Judge Posner by sniffing:

"Sailer and Poser [sic] have a very low opinion of car salesmen."

Anonymous said...

Vernunft - Steve is one of the best journalists (if I can call him that) out there. Read the archives and give the guy credit. He covers topic in detail YEARS before anyone else, and he gets no credit for doing so.

Steve Sailer said...

Yeah, especially the ethical dubiousness of car salesmen. I was way out ahead of everybody on that one. Who knew that car salesmen weren't always honest with their customers before Judge Poser and me broke the story in 2005?

Gladwell sure didn't.

M. Möhling said...

> Gladwell ... lumped me with Judge Posner
True, and yet, less is more more often than not. You're fuming all they way to the bank? That's truly funny, yet, better crack that joke with your buddies, not your readers. There's a fine line between self-deprecating humour and crankiness. Mundus vult decipit, so you're not too popular. Not fair, but get over it anyway. Revenge is best served cold.

Uncle Peregrine said...

I did read _Superfreakonomics_ and the genre has become so popular that after a short discussion of the effect of cutoff dates in youth sports they had to essentially say, we wanted to write about this, but Malcolm beat us to it.

Nora Helmer said...

OT completely: Don't miss the "Obamaramapanorama" photo in one of the Norwegian papers today. A 360 degree shot just as Obama received his (AA) Nobel.

The press here dubbed the elite's mania around Obama's coming to town "Obamarama". ;-) The regular folk feel a little different about it all: I overheard a couple of 60-something ladies on the bus the other day deciding that Obama is not much of a president (and why on earth was he being given the Nobel when he hasn't done anything yet) -- but Bill Clinton -- now there was a real president! ;-)

(Shift to zoom in; Cntl to zoom out; use the mouse to move around the scene.)

Eric Rasmusen said...

A good review, Mr. Sailer. You have an economist's mind, which I, as an economist, mean as a compliment.

Nate Winchester said...

I saw that book and was debating picking it up or not.

(sorry Mr Sailer, I've just started becoming a fan of yours so I don't know all of your backstory)

Am I correct then in assuming that you are recommending the sequel over the original book?

Rob said...

Why don't you know about climate?

Here's one post that you should find very interesting. A 5 minute read and 7 graphs (I know you like graphs, Steve) to ponder.

http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=3553

Anonymous said...

Sailer, you have an over-inflated opinion of your own competence. You are also in the same camp as Heckman?

nsam said...

Vernunft:

Sailer comes up with original insights simply by putting honesty above all else. More often than not, these observations contain a kernel of truth. Brilliance is not required.

Simon said...

Yes,but... Pioneer Fund! Pioneer Fund! Races differences in IQ = Racist! La la la...

Simon said...

Surely there's money in a "101 ways Gladwell is wrong" book? I mean, your American libel laws are so much better than ours...

PRCalDude said...

In contrast, Gladwell has a natural born kamikaze pilot's instinct for lashing back at criticism from exactly the wrong people: "Pinker? Murray? Posner? Sailer? Bring 'em on!"

This was surely an allusion to Sideshow Bob stealing the Wright Brothers' airplane from a museum and attempting to destroy a building with it after his nuclear plot was foiled.

Kylie said...

M. Möhling said: "You're fuming all they way to the bank? That's truly funny, yet, better crack that joke with your buddies, not your readers. There's a fine line between self-deprecating humour and crankiness."

I believe Steve was referring to Levitt fuming, not himself, when he wrote,"It must annoy U. of Chicago economist Levitt -- in a fuming all the way to the bank kinda way -- that he gets compared to Malcolm Gladwell a lot..."

As for there being a fine line between self-deprecating humor and crankiness, I think we all, Steve included, know that. Here, he was commiserating with Levitt while getting in a few barbs at the always-deserving Gladwell. (I suspect it may even have been the reverse.) He wasn't particularly self-deprecating but the post wasn't about him.

Dutch Boy said...

Judge Posner took some time off from downloading pornography to criticize the ethics of car salesmen.

Anonymous said...

As so often happens in the blogosphere, amateurs fired by genuine intellectual interest almost always scoop the agenda and consensus driven professional writing establishment.

OT, can somebody tell the NYT that nobody really cares that Blackwater Security casually assassinated Jihadi's in Iraq back in 2005? The Bush administration is so over.

josh said...

"Dear Mr. Levitt,I enjoyed your most recent book immensely. Of most particular concern to me was the section on prostitutes. You brilliantly described the 'worlds oldest profession' as my dear late father used to refer to it,as a good way for lazy women to make a living. Lazy? A Living?? Ha! You dont know the half of it! How about no good money grubbing parasites? Thats what I'd call 'em! I wish you'd write about how ungrateful they are,too! Give 'em everything and when,as my dear late father used to say,the SHTF,what do they do? Clam up and lay low? Hell no! They hire Gloria Allred and start shopping books! Have you ever seen her,BTW? I wouldnt #@#% her with a stolen dick,as my dear late father used to say! Well,my wifes calling,I better send this thru quick! Your,Tiger."

Anthony said...

He's a rational, risk-averse economist. He knows his book will make a lot of money no matter what he puts in it. So, maybe Levitt figured, "What do I need Heckman and Sailer punching holes in my reputation for, anyway? I'll just stay away from subjects where they know more than I do, and we'll all be happy."

Then why take on the Global Warmering folks? Neither Levitt nor Dubner were the leakers of the CRU emails, so they can't have known how quickly the reputation of the AGW folks would crumble after their book came out.

(I haven't read "Superfreakonomics" either. If you want to know a lot more about AGW and the politics of it, read Lomborg's "Cool It". He starts with the assumption that everything the IPCC says about changing climate and its causes are true, then goes to show that pretty much none of the political program advanced by the AGW folks is actually necessary or prudent.)

rob said...

I heard/saw a rumor once that gypsies transitioned quite easily from horse trading to used cars, and that they were the original reason for car salesmen having that rep. Of course, everyone who sells cars eventually picked up the model.

Anonymous said...

"Reviews of Books I Didn't Read"


----why not? Left wing critics do it all the time, trashing right-leaning tomes you can tell they probably only read the table-of-contents of at Borders and writing a full scathing review of thereafter.

Middletown Girl said...

Speaking of books, how come the Sailer book on Obama doesn't have a colorful splashy cover? It would have attracted much more attention.

Anonymous said...

You're working harder to push your audience in a good direction than most on the right, the left, or the fringe. I'm reading both blogs, and in this way you're being virtuous while Gladwell is sinning.

And including yourself with Pinker (not sure why some think you're not in Posner's league as an epistemologist -you have an MBA, he has a JD, and you both write outside your narrow expertise) was obviously humor, but the joke seems to have been too smart for some in your audience. You're above most bloggers in deference to experts and experts consensus in particular. It was a funny way to turn around Gladwell's flailing attempt to stigmatize Prof. Pinker through association.

But I recommend you seek new targets. Gladwell seems to be responding to your needling by self-emolation. I wouldn't have guessed it prior, but it's not a fair fight, so now it's becoming hard to read your jabs at him.

Hopefully Anonymous

http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com

Steve Sailer said...

"Sailer, you have an over-inflated opinion of your own competence. You are also in the same camp as Heckman?"

I've known Heckman since before he won his Nobel. We were very much in the same camp on Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory. Heckman invited me to give a presentation at a symposium he was organizing on Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory.

TomV said...

Dutch Boy,
You're thinking of Judge Kozinski, not Posner.

TGGP said...

The "porn" on Kozinski's computer was actually a man who only wanted to take a dump being chased by a donkey and trying to hold his pants up at the same time. You can find the video on youtube.

David Davenport said...

Malcom BagsWell still makes more $ than Steve.

Baloo said...

Steve, Middletown Girl is right. Your next book needs an attractive cover. Maybe a cartoon by ME.

Middletown Girl said...

"Sailer, you have an over-inflated opinion of your own competence."

The real issue in the current politically correct climate is not competence. Sailer is competent and so are many many others in the journalistic and scientific fields.
The qualities that are sorely lacking among most competent people are honesty and courage, and this is where Sailer beats the competition and where he deserves praise.

Had Sailer followed a more PC line, he would be a lot richer, be invited on Fox and CNN for his views on movies and politics, etc.
Honesty and courage, very precious commodities in the current intellectual climate.

Anonymous said...

Dumb comment: "Sailer, you have an over-inflated opinion of your own competence. You are also in the same camp as Heckman?"

Steve Sailer: "I've known Heckman since before he won his Nobel. We were very much in the same camp on Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory. Heckman invited me to give a presentation at a symposium he was organizing on Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory."


Steve may not have the math chops of the top level mathematical economists, but he's probably not far behind someone like Levitt (who is basically a sociologist). Steve's rare qualities are a nose for interesting social phenomena, common sense and the ability to see through false conventional wisdom.

Mr. Anon said...

"SuperFreakonomics elicited much angry response because it expresses some skepticism about Climate Change dogma, but I don't know anything about climate, so I skipped those parts."

You might consider looking into it some, Steve. You may not be interested in climate, but climate is interested in you. The link that Rob posted above is an interesting one.