Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner made sport of showing up their fellow economists in 2005’s Freakonomics for, essentially, an incuriosity about the world beyond their labs. SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance proves that Levitt and Dubner can still glean answers about the human condition by studying nearly anything—they just don’t have to be surprising to pass muster for this inessential sequel.
The economist and the journalist again attack the concept of the rational man, via studies involving monkeys, banking records, and doctors. Yet there’s an artfulness missing this time around in their circuitous paths toward obvious conclusions like “technology isn’t always better” and “men and women are different.” When they don’t openly recycle material—the opening chapter on prostitution returns to the work of Sudhir Venkatesh, whose research on gang members was featured in Freakonomics—it still feels stale, no doubt due to the category bloat after other authors rushed to add to the genre they created. One memorable exception: the duo’s attempts to convince crash-test labs to try putting child-size dummies in cars without proper safety restraints, confronting the bias toward child-safety seats.
Levitt and Dubner disparage traditional economists’ confidence in having discovered and mapped out the rational man, but at heart, they carry the same categorical gene for the irrational man. Late in SuperFreakonomics, they make the case that by understanding what motivates doctors to wash their hands, or prostitutes to use pimps, people can influence human behavior to solve global problems. But this supposedly groundbreaking idea is delivered by introducing outsider inventor Nathan Myhrvold, who wants to use massive chains of inner tubes to make hurricanes less severe. And they meet their match in a chapter on climate change that obfuscates the issue with old Al Gore jokes, and skimps on the effects of not trying to control global warming.
Levitt and Dubner have never met an unintended consequence they didn’t want to see as a microcosm of the world, and their late-stage left turn toward creative earnestness feels like a tire-screeching pull around a corner they set out to avoid in the first place. They baldly point out in their introduction that they could have rushed an inferior sequel into print before now. That makes SuperFreakonomics’ novelty vacuum particularly infuriating.