Freaks and geeks

Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner talks to Time Out...

The Knowledge

Freakonomics, a collaboration between economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner published in 2005, was an unlikely bestseller – economics is not generally considered to be the sexiest of subjects. Its success owed much to two factors: its choice of intriguing and controversial studies (from cheating sumo wrestlers to the links between rising abortion rates and falling crime) and its unhesitating willingness to challenge accepted wisdom and slaughter sacred cows.

The follow-up, Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance, is in some ways more of the same: the widespread failure of doctors to wash their hands, the apparently mythical safety of child car-seats and the changing cost of services from working girls during national holidays. But it feels as though there’s a more explicit direction this time, particularly in the chapters that challenge conventional thinking on global warming. Levitt and Dubner passionately argue that ‘cheap and simple solutions’ could be just around the corner – if only we could be a little more rational.

Does this book have more of a manifesto than the first one?
In the first book, I wouldn’t say we had a theme; this time there were a couple of squishy ideas that you wouldn’t want to write a book about on their own, but that infected the stories. The biggest one was ‘cheap and simple solutions’; the other was how hard behaviour change is. A lot of research is designed to give people in power a means to effect it, but what we kept finding was that even if you have all the facts on your side, and even if everyone involved is purely rational, behaviour change is a b****.

So changing global behaviour to stop climate change is practically impossible…
For me, the best example ever is doctors and hand-washing. We like to fight bad behaviour with education, but these are the most educated people in the hospital, and they’re still not doing it. People are complicated animals, we respond to incentives, and self-interest is a key component of who we are. It’s not the only component – I think one of the reasons people hate economists is that they assume we think that all humans have is self-interest. We don’t, but we don’t just have altruism, either.

Would the world be a better place if we were all rational?
I think a lot of people thought that when Obama became president, there would be this bear-hug of rationality. Because even though he’s an emotionalist in some ways, he is a real rationalist. I’m not saying I’m pro or con Obama, but it’s still a political and emotional decision-making process, that’s the way it is.

Isn’t that a flaw in democracy? Politicians are dependent on irrational and emotional humans…
Probably. Within government you have all these layers of people whose livelihood depends on encouraging you to be not irrational, but anti-rational. That’s what I love about the ‘cheap and simple solutions’ thing. You look at those, and at history, and think: wouldn’t it be great if we could have more of these fixes? But then you realise that there’s a whole industry dedicated to profiting from the expensive and complicated solutions. And in a way, that’s what government is – although I hate to say it. I’m not anti-government, but when you look at US employment in the past two years you see an increase in employment where? In government. It’s hard to imagine that a sector that manages to add employees during the biggest financial meltdown of the past 80 years is also going to go for cheap and simple solutions.

With the links between abortion rates and crime in the first book, and climate change in this one, do you deliberately pick controversial subjects to grab readers?
We pick the subjects that interest us. Most of what we do bears more resemblance to journalism or documentary filmmaking than to most economics. If we had nothing to say about global warming aside from what a hundred other people have said, we wouldn’t include it. One of the reasons Levitt does the kind of research he does is because of his father – a medical researcher. In med school, his father’s mentor told him, ‘You don’t have what it takes to be a top-notch medical researcher. You’re going to have to find an area that is so ignored and so devoid of knowledge that even you could make your mark there.’ And that’s the reason that Levitt’s father eventually became known as the ‘King of Farts’ – he started studying intestinal gas, and became the world’s foremost authority on it. So his son, my co-author, took that on board, which is why he ended up studying sumo wrestlers and street prostitution – he was following in his father’s footsteps.

Published by Allen Lane. Dhs77 at Magrudy’s

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