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Book of the week: Superfreakonomics

All through Superfreakonomics, you can’t miss the authors’ yearning for controversy. More than the controversial conclusions, it is the way of seeing things around us that makes Superfreakonomics so engaging.

books Updated: Oct 24, 2009 12:57 IST
Gautam Chikermane

BooksTwo Nobel Prize-winning economists who write clearly and simply — Paul Krugman of MIT and J. Bradford DeLong of Berkeley — have rubbished this book. They say that authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner misrepresented research. Particularly hot has been their argument on global warming based on a paper by Ken Caldeira of Stanford. Caldeira says the bit about global cooling is "misleading". And if that’s not bad enough, the economics credibility — based on another paper by Martin L. Weitzman of Harvard — is being debunked. Dubner, the co-author of the book, defends it on http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com

All through Superfreakonomics, you can’t miss the authors’ yearning for controversy. Take the risk of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and Aids in India, and one of the conclusions: Indian men’s penises are small. Or that it was cable TV that empowered rural women in India — households with cable TV being more likely to send their girls to school. Such households are also likely to have women not tolerating domestic abuse.

Things around us are simplified through the lens of economics. How, for instance, the costs of terrorism multiply. “The probability that an average American will die in a given year from a terrorist attack is roughly 1 in 5 million,” they write. “He is 575 times more likely to commit suicide.”

More than the controversial conclusions, it is the way of seeing things around us that makes Superfreakonomics so engaging. To seek potential terrorists, the book shows that they are disproportionately likely to own a mobile phone, be a student, rent rather than own a home, and unlikely to have a savings account, but likely to withdraw money from an ATM on Friday afternoons and buy life insurance. Do read this book — even if you don’t take all its conclusions seriously.