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If it ain't broke...
on 23 October 2009
'Superfreakonomics' is the cumbersomely titled sequel to the bestselling 'Freakonomics' - a book that gave an entertaining overview of microeconomics, and supplied plenty of food for thought. If you enjoyed the first volume, you will undoubtedly enjoy 'SuperFreakonomics'. It is essentially the same book, but with different case studies - if your first book sold over four million copies, why change a winning formula?
Initially I was unimpressed; the first chapter, dealing with prostitution felt like a rehash of the first book, only less interesting. Soon after, things pick up. The sections on emergency medicine and altruism were interesting and ask questions about the way in which we perceive our world. It is these alternate world views that are the 'Freakonomics' books strongest assets. Time and again the authors hold up a hand and say 'but what about...?'
Not everybody will be happy. The authors offer some thoughts on climate change, that go against current thinking, for which they will undoubtedly be pilloried. Of course challenging convention is the point of this book, and I'm sure the authors will welcome the debate. Less happy though, will be road-safety experts. 'Superfreakonomics' reveals that for the drinker, drink-driving is safer than drink-walking. (They do say that a taxi home is much better option still, but considering their findings on altruism, this seems a foolhardy admission.) The section on child safety seats will also cause great consternation, not least amongst child safety seat manufacturers.
Whilst casting doubt on the efficacy of child car seats, the book does ask a singular and important question. Since the primary users of rear seats are children, why aren't they designed with children in mind? Many of the topics covered in 'Superfreakonomics' are distilled down to simple and (with hindsight) obvious questions, and this is part of what makes it a pleasure to read. Another factor, is the lightness of tone, despite being a book about small details, it never becomes bogged down. I would though agree with another reviewer's comments, that the tone used can sometimes grate. It is very chummy and often self-congratulating.
'Superfreakonomics's' strength is also its biggest weakness. To avoid being, dull it only takes a cursory glance at its subject matter. One can't help but wonder what we aren't being told. The authors acknowledge that statistics are easy to fudge, but without doing masses of further reading, it is impossible to judge to what extent the figures have been massaged to back up their suppositions.
That said, the purpose of this book is to provoke debate and stop its readers from accepting everything at face value. I would suggest that this scepticism has to start with 'Superfreakonomics' itself - this is a book that will pose far more questions than it answers, but that is no bad thing. Like its predecessor, 'Superfreakonomics' is an entertaining and thought-provoking book, that deserves to be be read and discussed by as many people as possible.