Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rick James Would Be Proud

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have come out with a sequel to their surprise hit, Freakonomics (entitled, simply "SuperFreakonomics") and it is every bit as entertaining and fascinating as the original. At the same time, a new Malcom Gladwell collection "What the Dog Saw," is hitting the shelves.

You'll probably find these two side-by-side at your local bookstore, as the popular wisdom seems to be that these three are in the same practice of writing books on what seems to me to be best described as "pop-sociology," although Levitt is an economist and Gladwell is a historian. The reality, however, is that in this particular field, Gladwell, as hard-working, prolific and intelligent as he might be, is not fit to shine Levitt and Dubners' shoes.

The difference between Levitt/Dubner and Gladwell is the difference between Rocky Road and vanilla ice cream. Rocky Road isn't for everyone, but it certainly has a lot of flavors to consider, while vanilla is safe and digestible, but ultimately, somewhat unsatisfying. The eater feels like something is missing.

So it is with Gladwell, the Bing Crosby to Levitt & Dubners' Mick and Keith. Gladwell is much less likely to stir controversy, his conclusions in books like Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers are nearly universally hailed as groundbreaking and revolutionary, and very rarely challenged in popular media (perhaps despite Gladwell's protestations to the contrary). On the other hand, Levitt & Dubner, with assertions such as that there is a causal link between abortions and drops in crime rates, are regularly excoriated by both the right and the left.

My own feeling is that what is missing from Gladwell's work is some kind of practical application; indeed, Gladwell doesn't even seem to be looking for one. While Levitt/Dubner's work easily lends itself to all sorts of ideas about how we can change the world and why we do or don't, in every area from education to climate change, Gladwell's work seems more about wry observations of why things are how they happen to be, with little concern about what that means for the future.

Freaknomics (and SuperFreakonomics) tells us why and when people cheat and how people tend to over and underestimate potential dangers in the world. This is information that is very clearly useful, and can very obviously inform our future behaviors, if you buy into it. Gladwell's work tells us that in certain cases, people born in certain months have a greater chance of success (Outliers) that people sometimes instinctively know when something is out of place (Blink) and that certain products blow up in sales when enough of the right kind of people take an interest in it (Tipping Point). It's all interesting to be sure. But is it really groundbreaking and revolutionary? Without some kind of context, some interesting ideas about how we can manipulate such information in a useful way? Not for my money.

Speaking of my money, I bought both SuperFreakonomics and What the Dog Saw. Sure enough, Levitt and Dubner jump right in with the both controversial and useful notion that, in deaths per mile, driving home drunk is many, many times safer than walking home drunk, and moves into the idea that television empowers Indian women while at the same time leading to an overall increase in crime (not violence, but crime) all over the world, while Gladwell starts us off with story of Ron Popeil, what makes him special (he learned to make the product the star) and how he came up with the idea to invent the RonCo Rotisserie (he realized that people pay a lot for rotisserie-cooked food) and moves on to explore why Heinz has cornered the market on ketchup (they make the best ketchup).

To be fair, the Gladwell book is a compilation of some of his favorite New Yorker articles, rather than a single book concept with a unifying theme, and as he states, is not intended to persuade, but simply to give insight into how others think. It is also well-written, and well-researched, and Gladwell is to be commended for this. The Ron Popeil story, the quest to make a better ketchup, and the other stories Gladwell tells are interesting, in their own way.

That being said, if you want to read a book that will really keep you up at night thinking about things like the economics of prostitution, how terrorists are profiled and whether or not you should be more afraid of elephants than sharks, you're going to want to plunk your money down on SuperFreakonomics. I'm sure Rick James would agree.


James said...

The Superfreakonomics guys are taking some serious heat for their chapter on climate change. Here's Krugman:

Craig Berger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Berger said...

Well, I think this illustrates the point. You wont find anyone in the New York Times getting all worked up over Gladwell. I also agree with the perspective that the global warming crisis is a bit overstated, if very real. The real scientists do agree that the average rise in temperature due to global warming is something on the order of one degree per CENTURY, and the rise in sea levels something like an inch and a half every decade or so.

Furthermore what the NYT article does not address is that L & D points out that there is an existing, viable solution to global warming, i.e. seeding the atmosphere with Sulfur Dioxide, which the powers that be do not seem to want to entertain. I think THAT, and not how many scientists were concerned about global cooling in the 70s, is the crux of the chapter.

James said...

The "global cooling" controversy is a bit before my time, but I understand that there wasn't the critical scientific mass behind the viewpoint that there is for global warming now.

Global warming is tricky because people encompass a lot of different concepts into the term. My main take on it is that human activity is causing big spikes in the levels of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane. These gases contribute to warming--and pollution--and thus should be regulated like other pollutants (much more strictly than they are now).

I agree with you on the main distinction between Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys. I just think the latter can be a bit too driven to play it cute in their contrarianism.

Keith said...

I agree. Gladwell doesn't seem to introduce new ideas so much as bring to light some of the more fascinating academic findings that the public is generally oblivious to. He's a very good story-teller, and I think the ideas he presents are more important than you give them credit for.

Levitt and Dubner are much different, as you point out. They present ideas that are (I think) completely original.

I met Levitt a few years ago in Las Vegas when I was a subject for a study he was doing on how well poker players adapt to different poker-like games. It was a cool study, and he said it might be in his next book (which just came out). I'll have to check it out.

Craig Berger said...

By the way, here is Levitt's response to Krugman: