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'SuperFreakonomics': Forget What You Know (Again)


In SuperFreakonomics, the follow-up to their 4-million-selling Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have fired yet another provocative salvo at conventional wisdom. In their crusade to make economics ("the dismal science") less, well, dismal, Levitt and Dubner now venture into colorful topics such as a "practically free" solution to climate change, the legacy of Robert S. McNamara, human organ sales and "drunk-walking," in each instance using economics' science and statistics to explain the unseen causes of the vagaries of behavior. The results are, expectedly, fascinating.

Seen most appropriately as an extension of Freakonomics rather than as a divergent sequel, SuperFreakonomics' 220 pages are breezy and casual, its musings perfect for cocktail-party fodder. An afternoon with Levitt and Dubner's book will transform you into the most interesting person in the room that evening.

Consider Levitt and Dubner's theorem that "friends don't let friends walk drunk": On a per-mile basis, they write, someone walking under the influence is eight times more likely to get killed on his or her way home from the bar than someone driving under the influence. Naturally, the math and logic of the assertion check out; it's up to the reader to sort out the implications.

In their five amusing chapters, Levitt and Dubner flit their microeconomic magnifying glass quickly and widely over society. So it doesn't take long to move from something as grisly as, say, New York City's infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder, in which a woman was stabbed to death while neighbors ignored her cries for help, to something more eccentric, like the crime-promoting ramifications of the wholesome sitcom Leave it to Beaver. Could too many mothers and fathers have assumed that lessons gleaned from the squeaky-clean Cleaver family were an adequate substitute for real parenting?

The cover of Freakonomics featured a picture of a Granny Smith apple that has been sliced open to reveal the innards of an orange beneath the peel. SuperFreakonomics' cover features that same piece of fruit, this time as an erupting green and orange mess. If the book itself doesn't quite explode out the Freakonomics formula, its seeds of thought and pulpy ruminations are nevertheless sure to stimulate and delight.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.