Book review: SUPERFREAKONOMICS by Levitt and Dubner.
The sequel to the bestselling Freakonomics, Superfreakonomics, starts out by telling us that the authors lied in the previous book by telling us that it had no "unifying theme" when, in their own words, it had, namely that "people respond to incentives". Based on the near hysterical reaction to this book, it looks like they will need another clarification for book 3, if there ever is one. Let's deal with that furore first. Much has been negative and mostly on the theories raised on the cause and cure for global warming a topic that can cause many an eye to glaze over. I think they have missed the point: namely that Levitt and Dubner are asking us to look at things differently, to ask questions in a different way and how data can reveal surprising results -often contrary to popular thinking. As data people at Sensorpro Research, our mantra is "do you think everyone else thinks like you do" and this book speaks to that in terms of questioning commonly held views. Let's look at a few:
On unintended consequences. New York pre motor car was awash with horse manure and every block had a horse pooh mountain causing no end of misery to its inhabitants. Along comes the motor car. Problem solved but new problem created. The point being that solutions to these problems can come from the most unexpected quarter. The authors call this the law of unintended consequences and it's one of the most potent.
On War. From 2002-2008 the US military averaged 1,643 deaths per year. The corresponding "no major war" period of the 1980's show 2,100 deaths per year. When the authors looked at the data it turned out that the non-war figures were higher due to accidents when training. So less military lives are lost in wartime. But of course no right thinking citizen would say that war is good especially since they fail to take into account the victims of military attacks. But these numbers on their own don't lie. It is the like of these examples that are causing such furore. They are diametrically opposed to what we consider to be 'Normal thinking'. Our view? Question the numbers being thrown at you -they may not stack up. And for your business following 'Normal thinking' may not always be the right answer.
On TV. The authors claim that the long held view "violence on TV begets violence on the street" is not valid. Their claim is that children watching a lot of TV, even family-friendly ones, are more likely to engage in crime when they get older. Their approach was to compare crime statistics with the rollout of TV in the US. The data stacked up. US States that were behind in the rollout had less crime. What they did not do was answer the question "why it did this?" Instead they postulate: -was the resulting less parental attention a factor? Or the ineptitude of the police in certain shows made them less afraid of getting caught?
On Altruism. So how kind and unselfish are we? Turns out, when it suits us and that people respond to incentives. So some interesting lessons if you fundraise for a charity –reason enough for you to read this book But the section on altruism raised a much more interesting debate and a concern I've shared for the longest time. Namely that of research conducted via the University. We employ a number of online panels for our research. Their makeup, diversity and sourcing are critical to the results of any research. The authors question the veracity of the University approach. They find a type of "forced cooperation" -where the research assistant reports back the very things the researcher is most eager to find. For example is it appropriate that senior researchers use students for research when that student may at some point be awarded a grade from the researcher? Of course it's not. Does it happen? Of course it does. Our view? Bravo, Levitt and Dubner.
Conclusion. So you might think we liked this book but overall found it somewhat lacking when compared to the more meatier Supercrunchers by Ayres and Buyology by Lindstrom. It does, however, concur with our view on data and how to use it to benefit your business. This book reminds me of Gladwell's "Tipping point": interesting as a blog post but as a whole book? Well, No. Levitt and Dubner have learned in a very public way that not everyone else thinks like they do.
The authors will be presenting in London, 13:00 GMT Tuesday 10 Nov and you can watch live http://bit.ly/superfreaklondon The event will be on Twitter using hashtag #superfreakonomics We’ll be there as @sensorpro