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Superfreakonomics

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner





One way to make yourself feel better is to compare ys to others who are worse off. Apparently Indian women have high rates of unwanted pregnancies and STD infections, mainly bc 60% of Indian men have penises too small for the condoms manufactured for WHO.

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Indian poor families used to habitually abort female embryos, bc have to provide dowries, until 2001-6 cable TV spread to rural villages. Somehow this lead to female empowerment - began to have a lower birthrate and keep daughters in school longer. Could trace the change as TV spread at different rates.

Problem of horses in New York 1900. Clogged traffic, noisy, and accidents - 1900 1 in 17000 NYers killed by horse, 2000 1 in every 30000 died in auto accidents - in other words, horses killed nearly twice as many. Biggest problem was horseshit - smell, rats, flies - and no-one cd figure out how to deal with it. The along came cars and problem disappeared.

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Hospitals are a major danger zone. Medical mistakes, doctors and nurses carrying germs. And they intervene far too often, as shown when absent through either a strike or a major convention.

We spend huge amount of money prolonging life by a couple of months, often with brutal side effects. But patients have "this deep and abiding desire not to be dead."

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Iran is only country which runs a pay-for-organs system, and is only country which doesn't have a waiting list for transplants.





(Guardian interview 2015)

More troubling to both of them are the critics who say they got some things downright wrong. This is most true in the case of a chapter in SuperFreakonomics about climate change. These are the claims that led directly to Kolbert's 'horseshit' metaphor in the New Yorker. They are also the ones that clearly continue to irritate Dubner and Levitt, and they end up taking up half of the interview.

Critics take exception to each of the chapter's three key sections. First, Dubner and Levitt recounted and lightly mocked a prior wave of environmentalist mobilisation around the issue of 'global cooling'. Then they suggested that the efforts of environmentalists today to bring down carbon emissions were ultimately hopeless and, in the process, were said to have misdescribed a lot of climate science. They finished by writing about one man's suggested alternative solution in celebratory tones. That solution amounted to an easily caricatured hose into the sky.

An internet storm ensued. Blogposts attacking their conclusions spread. America's favourite leftist-teddy-bear economist, Paul Krugman, got involved, and wrote that 'in this crucial chapter, there's an average of one statement per page that's either flatly untrue or deeply misleading'. But when I ask Dubner and Levitt about it, both are extremely dismissive. Levitt is matter of fact: 'There was literally nothing wrong about what we said. Everything we said was based on leading scholarship. As far as we know, all that leading scholarship continues to be true. And what people didn't like about global warming was our conclusions. It had nothing to do with our facts.'

Dubner, meanwhile, decides to take a political stance. 'Granted, you're writing for the Guardian, which has a lean against the lean of that particular argument of ours, even though a lot of other leans of ours run right in the pipeline that the Guardian lays out, but ... The attack on the climate change thing was basically a guy who made up a bunch of stuff, who works for a thinktank, whose agenda is a certain kind of environmental activism. And moreover, this guy was like a principal in a firm that consulted on solar energy. So, no offence, I am not directing this at you, but out of the universe of things that someone could ask about, this is the way it always goes. I can't think of an interview from the last two years where someone hasn't said, 'Well, what about global [warming]?'

But it wasn't just one guy. Many writers and scientists attacked them, and later Levitt does tell me there are some things in the chapter he'd change. Mostly, though, they aren't factual. They have to do with the mocking tone that the chapter took at the beginning. 'I tell you what we were guilty of, Dubner,' Levitt says to his partner, who has started packing up his things to leave. 'Making fun of the fact that, number one, this global cooling thing had happened in the 70s. It happened. But we mocked people for it. We made fun of the environmentalists for getting upset about some other problem that turned out not to be true.'

'But we didn't do it with enough reverence, or enough shame and guilt. And I think we pointed out that it's completely totally and actually much more religion than science. I mean what are you going to do about that? I think that's just a fact.'







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