Skip to main content

Super Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner *****

This review is written a long time after the book came out, but after reviewing Levitt & Dubner’s latest, I realised we had never had a review of their second book.
As with the phenomenally successful Freakonomics, what we have here is a very clever application of the tools of economics (in effect, mostly statistics, though with some more explicitly economic aspects) to a range of surprising problem areas from prostitution (more explanatory than preventative) to climate change. The aim is to show that the ‘common sense’ view isn’t always the most helpful, and the authors prove this in spades.
From the classic discovery that many deaths were caused in maternity hospitals by doctors not washing their hands, to the apparently bizarre statistic that national level youth football players tend to be born in the first three months of the year (it’s to do with the time of year the cut-off birth date to qualify is applied) it is entertaining and thought provoking throughout. I especially liked the section on climate change, where the authors addressed the uncertainty in ways that really is rarely done by climate scientists, and looked at some surprisingly cheap and cheerful solutions.
I think the only sections I have slight issue with are the parts on child car seats and walking drunks. The child seat issue is portrayed in headline as child seats being ineffective, where the data does show benefit in terms of injury rates. The authors do still make an important point, though, that things would be a lot better if the seats were easy to fit properly. On walking drunks, we are told that by examining in the number of people killed while drunk driving and the number killed while walking drunk, it is actually safer, per mile to drink drive than walk home when drunk. But this grossly oversimplifies the situation, as drinkers aren’t in a simple binary split of sober/drunk. I’d suggest the majority of people who leave a party having consumed too much alcohol to legally drive are not drunk, and not liable to fall in front of a car.
Relatively minor quibbles, though about a fascinating book.
Paperback:  
Kindle version:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…

A turnround from Tyson

I am delighted that one of our reviewers has been able to give a five star review to Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book. The astrophysicist has taken over Carl Sagan's old post as the number one science populariser in the US, but his written output in the past has been patchy, to say the least.

There have been at least two significant problems. One is dubious history of science. For example, in the cases of both Galileo and Bruno he has passed on undiluted the comic book version of history where Galileo is persecuted for mentioned heliocentricity (rather than his disastrous political handling of the  pope) and mutters 'Eppur si muove!' at his trial, and Bruno is burned at the stake for his advanced scientific ideas (both misrepresentations). Some argue that it getting history of science accurate doesn't matter if we get the right message about science across - but if we are prepared to distort historical data, why should anyone take scientific data seriously?

The o…