Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book Review: Superfreakonomics

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life InsuranceSuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This book provides much of the same fare (with different topics, of course) to the first installment (Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (P.S.), reviewed here). I think it would be appropriate to call it a continuation (and not something more or better as the "super" might lead you to believe). Again, it is a collection of rather random topics (often within the same chapter), but I thought it was interesting.

If you are interested in some of the car seat information, you can find it in this book (chapter 4):
But even the most rigorous econometric analysis of the FARS data yields the same results. In recent crashes and old ones, in vehicles large and small, in single-car crashes and pileups, there is no evidence that car seats are better than seat belts in saving the lives of children two and older. In certain kinds of crashes--rear-enders, for instance--car seats actually perform slightly worse.
I liked how the authors pointed out that blaming parents for installing car seats incorrectly doesn't seem quite right: "You might argue that a forty-year-old safety device that only 20 percent of its users can install correctly may not be a great safety device to be with."

The FARS data set includes on fatal car crashes (where at least one person died, not necessarily a child). The authors found a couple of other data sets to look at the rates of non-fatal injuries:
For preventing serious injury, lap-and-shoulder belts once again performed as well as child safety seats for children aged two through six. But for more minor injuries, car seats did a better job, reducing the likelihood of injury by roughly 25 percent compared with seat belts.
Interestingly, the authors suggest car seats "give parents a misplaced sense of security" that "keeps us from striving for a better solution, one that may well be simpler and cheaper, and would save even more lives." (They suggest modifying the existing seat belt so that it properly fits smaller bodies, those of children rather than adults.)

The next chapter I found most interesting was "What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo Have in Common?" (Chapter 5). I don't really want to get into a debate on the environment, as I don't actually know or understand all that much of the climate change science. Hopefully, if you're interested, you'll pick up the book and flip through it yourself. (I skimmed the endnotes on this chapter and they do reference quite a few articles that should provide more actual numbers than you'll find in the chapter itself.)

What intrigued me were the thoughts of the "experts" the authors found (and I put that in quotes only because I don't know if the people were the right ones, though they certainly seemed to have the credentials if we're to believe the book):
Everyone in the room agrees that the earth has been getting warmer and they generally suspect that human activity has something to do with it. But they also agree that the standard global-warming rhetoric in the media and political circles is oversimplified and exaggerated.
It seems they think, if there really is a problem, a few families changing a few behaviors is not going to save the world. The "current slate of proposed global warming solutions" are "too little," "too late," and "too optimistic." The authors go on to show some of the suggested solutions by their group of experts, gathered by a company called Intellectual Ventures. I appreciated a comment by the co-founder and CEO, Nathan Myhrvold, who said:
"They are seriously proposing doing a set of things that could have enormous impact--and we think probably negative impact--on human life," he says. "They want to divert a huge amount of economic value toward immediate and precipitous anti-carbon initiatives, without thinking things through. This will have a huge drag on the world economy. There are billions of poor people who will be greatly delayed, if not entirely precluded, from attaining a First World standard of living. In this country, we can pretty much afford the luxury of doing whatever we want on the energy-and-environment front, but other parts of the world would seriously suffer."
I'm not sure how I feel about climate change. (Is it really happening? If so, how much of the change is caused by humans? How much impact can we have by modifying a few behaviors? Is periodic climate change a part of the world as God created it?) The ideas in this chapter didn't really change my views very much; they didn't provide a lot of answers. We just continue trying to live as the best stewards we can of the bit of land God has given us and try not to buy too much stuff. I like reading something that acknowledges how much we don't know about climate change and how some of the solutions offered are as likely to be detrimental as helpful.

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