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Discussion Questions For Superfreakonomics

So this wrapped up month one of the World’s Strongest Book Club. For non-fiction we read Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

For fiction we read Black Hills by Dan Simmons.

Today we’ll discuss Superfreakonomics. As I read, I wrote down questions as they occurred to me, based on the Superfreakonomics questions in the chapters.  A week after finishing the book and reflecting on it, I wrote down some more. I picked a few and those are what you will read below.

I’ll answer my own questions and you are invited to do the same whether you read the books as part of the club, or you had read them before.

1. Overall impression

A fun read. It moves quickly, it’s interesting, it’s not too long, and for someone who preaches curiosity and questioning, I still don’t ask questions quite like Levitt and Dubner. Although it examines a lot of serious issues, I would still classify this book as a beach read.

2. Do I believe the science?

Every single time I thought “Wow, how interesting!” I simultaneously asked myself: “Is that true?” This is just habit. I don’t believe everything I read, but I don’t have the background to dispute statistics about suicide bombers, global warming, and monkey prostitution off the top of my head.

Doing some research after the fact, I learned that the global warming chapter in particular has generated serious backlash and accusations. No surprises there.

You might find the following interesting:

A statement by Levitt.

The Anatomy Of A Smear by Dubner, published in the New York Times.

I found myself in the same situation I often do when reading non-fiction: wanting to be skeptical but not committing to enough subsequent study to really know for sure. I want to believe what scientists say without becoming an expert myself . So far it isn’t hurt me to do so.

How about you?

3. Is this book more valuable for its entertainment or educational value? Or neither?

The questions asked in Superfreakonomics purport to examine the “Hidden side of everything.”

As fun as it was, I kept asking myself “Are these questions worth asking?” I believe the potential benefits of finding ways to halt, reverse, or prevent global warming (depending on where you stand) are worth pursuing, absolutely.

Combating terrorists? Sure. Are we inherently more altruistic or selfish? Sure.

Actually, the more I think about it, I believe all of the questions are worth asking. If pursued to their logical conclusions, the answers could probably do a lot of good.

But to me it still felt like a beach read, no matter how earth-shattering the implications might be. Maybe that’s why I’m not in charge of anything important like a fusion reactor or Counter Terrorism squads.

4. Would you recommend it?

Yes, I would. Although the discussion on pimps and the valuation of sex acts might be a little scandalous for some. But the monkey prostitution made me laugh my head off.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss Black Hills. If you’d like to know the selections for July, please subscribe to the newsletter.

Feel free to agree, disagree, and add your own questions to the discussion.


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  • cinderkeys July 1, 2010, 1:36 am

    Monkey prostitution! I think I read about the study that refers to, but had no idea it was in Superfreakonomics. I’ll have to pick that up sooner than later.

  • Janette Hanagarne July 1, 2010, 2:47 pm

    I agree that the book is a beach read. It felt like reading a particularly interesting issue of Newsweek. I found myself not feeling compelled to pick it up and read more. But as I read through, the information was surprising. It made me feel better about global warming, though. Not that it’s better, but that really smart people who have the ability to change things are actually working hard on it.

    I would recommend it to others. In fact I already have.

  • Amanda July 2, 2010, 3:58 am

    Hi Josh,

    I enjoyed Superfreakonomics although not as much as I enjoyed Freakonomics. The naming issue they raised in the first book is verified in other social science studies -not just those done by the quantitatively obsessed.

    I suspect with both books, it’s the ‘beach book’ feel that sells and appeals to the mass markets. This isn’t bad thing, after all, it’s people are reading and thinking and discussing rather than just being couch potatoes glued to Lost or Masterchef.

    I disagreed with their take on global warming, but this didn’t make me want to throw the book across the room. As for the science – I’m a social scientist (an anthropologist) so I’m not all that qualified to comment, but having done some research on naming practices amongst certain socio-economic and ethnic groups in Australia, I will say that the chapter in Freakonomics on naming practices and socio-economic outcomes does stack up.

    I have recommended it to others and lent to one friend.

    Thanks for the book club, Josh! Have a great weekend. I’m off camping. Again!

  • Bill Jones July 5, 2010, 10:25 am

    I read the book last November. I was a fan of the first one. I re-read it for the book club.

    1. Overall impression…I liked it. I figured I would since I enjoyed the first one. I like stuff that makes me think. Beach read, yes. Of course I could see where some folks couldn’t handle reading this at the beach…they’ll be reading that vampire stuff. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

    2. I think the science part is very interesting in that it provides another way of examining things. Is it true? I would like to assume it to be. There would be a lot of pitfalls for the authors if not.

    The backlash the authors received was probably expected considering the topics. It also allowed them to continue the banter and probably sell more books. Maybe open some minds.

    3. I was entertained as well as educated. Of course entertainment for me has also been a few text books. Yeah I’m not the norm as far as book entertainment is concerned.

    4. I would/have recommended the book.

    As a side note it was interesting that the authors bring up Gladwells’ take on the Genovese murder and present their own conclusions. They also bring up soccer players expertise by birth-date similar to Gladwells findings on hockey players in Outliers (another fine beach read).

    Fun stuff here dude. I would recommend that your list pick up this book or it’s audio version and jump in!