February 01, 2010 | Review by Bill Gates
SuperFreakonomics (Book Review)
Entertaining, well-written, and full of surprises and insights, SuperFreakonomics is Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s follow up to Freakonomics.
I had a chance to read a prepublication copy SuperFreakonomics before it was officially released.
I really liked Freakonomics and I think SuperFreakonomics is even better.
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner like to cover a lot of ideas, in contrast to Malcolm Gladwell, whose books I like a lot too. Gladwell tends to take a few ideas and illustrate them in depth with a lot of examples.
I recommend this book to anyone who reads nonfiction. It is very well written and full of great insights.
I could be accused of bias in recommending it because I had some limited involvement in three of the stories.
In discussing U.S. health care, the authors work with Craig Feied and Mark Smith to use the data-gathering software now called Almaga which was bought by Microsoft. It is an amazing piece of technology with its ability to let you look at patient trends. The book explains how this data can be used to look at the quality of doctors and different medical procedures.
When they talk about how you might reduce hurricane damage, they mention Nathan Myhrvrold and the team at Intellectual Ventures and their idea to mix hot water on the surface of the ocean with cooler water below to reduce hurricane strength. Unfortunately the authors don’t figure out how the economics should work and who would authorize an experiment that would change the local weather with mostly good effects, but perhaps some bad effects as well.
When they focus on global warming they again mention Intellectual Ventures and you meet Lowell Wood and Ken Caldeira for a discussion of how geoengineering can probably delay the effects and provide many extra decades to make the changes in energy production and use that are necessary. Levitt and Dubner do a great job of describing the idea but don’t go into the question of how it should be applied.
One of my favorite things in the book is the debunking of many of the studies economists have done that they use as the basis for claiming that people are irrational in their choices. Dubner and Levitt cover new research that shows that the wrong conclusions were drawn. I think what researchers are seeing is a reflection of the social rewards/risks for the students involved in the tests rather than some basic flaw in human economic thinking.
The book also talks about how people underestimate how much life has improved in every way during the last 100 years. The example they use is the risk of dying in childbirth and how that has changed. They also talk about progress on diseases (particularly vaccines such as polio) and car safety. I knew that seat belts were an amazing intervention but I hadn’t realized how little extra safety airbags and children’s car seats provide on top of what is provided by the full use of seat belts.
One area where the book doesn’t quite get the story right is in discussing how important nitrogen fertilizer was in increasing food production. The Vaclav Smil book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production tells this incredible story in great depth. SuperFreakonomics talks about ammonium nitrate as if it was the silver bullet that made the advance possible. There was some ammonium nitrate that was mined from South America but that quickly ran out. The real advance was the process to extract nitrogen gas from the air and turn it into the nitrogen compounds that plants can use.
There are tons more things in this book that you will find cool that I don’t mention.