Getting deep into 'SuperFreakonomics'

Steven D. Levitt, left, and Stephen J. Dubner, right, authors of "Freakonomics"


Kai Ryssdal: In their out-of-nowhere bestseller "Freakonomics," journalist Stephen Dubner and University of Chicago economist Steven Leavitt explored economics and human behavior. How what you think is going to happen when people have certain incentives often doesn't. They're back with the sequel "Superfreakonomics." In which they apply that law of unintended consequences to prostitutes and suicide bombers and most controversially, perhaps, to global warming. Whether trying to cut down on carbon is the right thing to do, or whether there's a cheaper technological fix. That part's at the end of this interview. To get things started I asked Stephen Dubner how they sort out all the data they dig up.

STEPHEN DUBNER: The thing that got me interested in economics was about 8 or 10 years ago and that was behavioral economics, so that is some of the stuff that we've talked about, which are often very small, really, really interesting lab experiments that produce a really interesting story that makes you say, "Holy cow! People aren't as rational as economists have been saying." And what we try to do are cool, slightly bigger stories, which is to say instead of depending on little studies in the lab that represent the artificiality of the lab, we try instead to go out into the real world and find real data that reflects real human behavior and then try to make sense of it.

Ryssdal: Well, tell me one of those cool little stories then.

DUBNER: Here's one, I don't know if it's cool or not...

Ryssdal: It's got to be cool. Because Dubner said it's gotta be a cool story.

Steven Leavitt: OK, it's gotta be cool. OK, OK I'll give you a cool one then instead. In the lab there's a game called the dictator game, and the dictator game involves two people, and you just give $10, say, to one of the college students. And they can either keep the money themselves or they can hand it over, as much as they want to give to the other person. And what happens in the lab is that in general these college students tend to give about $3 or $4 away to the person on the other side of the wall, even though they'll never see them again, they don't even know the person who they're giving the money to. And economists have interpreted this as evidence that people are altruistic. Now, if you go you out into the field, say, you walk, you go on the subway, you can stand around all day and no stranger is going to come by and open up their wallet and say, "Hey, I've got $10 bucks in my wallet, I'm going to give you $3," so sometimes you don't even have to run the experiment in the field, you know that people just aren't as altruistic as they look in the lab.

DUBNER: But I think in the real world, what's just so interesting, I mean this is what makes it fun for us, I'll speak at least for me, fun for me, is it's neat to see the way that human behavior is often unpredictable even by the smartest people who use really seemingly clever incentives. I read something the other day about a very well regarded paleontologist who found this nice location where there a lot of human remains. Actually I don't remember if there were human remains or animal remains. There were bones, and he hired a bunch of the natives to help him dig the bones. It was really hard work. And he promised them, this was a long time ago, he promised them 10 cents per bone fragment. So what he discovered was that when they would find a big fragment, they'd crush it to pieces to get more money. Not very good for paleontology, unfortunately.

Ryssdal: So this is human beings messing up a perfectly good experiment, right?

DUBNER: Exactly right, yes, we always get in our own way.

Ryssdal: We get now to Chapter 5, the one on global warming. And I want to spend a little bit of time here because you guys have gotten a lot of criticism for some of the things you say here. Maybe the most significant part of it is that you are alleged to have misrepresented the views of Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist, and that you did it in order to make this book more controversial. What do you say to that?

DUBNER: This fellow Ken Caldeira, who is a very well-regarded climate scientist, he was asked if we had represented his views properly. And there was a lot of back and forth and the ultimate conclusion from this climate blogger who had asked him this was that no, he was deeply misrepresented. And I just have to tell you that as a journalist who takes this stuff pretty seriously, it's a little bit of offensive because it's untrue. And so the trail of proof here is the fact that not only did we write this chapter in a judicious and considered way, but incorporated the feedback from this scientist and others.

Leavitt: Let me just say not just feedback, I mean he read the chapter.

RYSSDAL: He also says the way you guys framed his remarks leaves a misimpression. And that's a fairly serious discussion in a book that is on the day it's out, number eight on the Amazon list.

DUBNER: Yeah, I don't really know what to make of misimpression. Ken Caldeira is a climate scientist who is worth listening to. The reason we listen to him, and the reason he's in this chapter at all is because he is with a group of guys who are proposing a different kind of solution than just carbon mitigation. And so that in of itself is a controversial topic. There are people who probably wish that a climate scientist like Ken Caldeira would never go near anybody who is even thinking about geo-engineering.

Ryssdal: Is it possible to have this kind of debate, this serious policy-orientated debate on issues that touch on economics, and climate and environment and all these kinds of things, without it getting ideological or political, though?

DUBNER: I would say no at this point. I think there's as much politics in climate science as there is science. If you read our chapter, what we're saying is global warming is potentially a very important problem. And the approach that most people seem to think is the right one is to lower carbon emissions. The problem with that approach is number one, it's very expensive. Number two, it takes a long time. All we're really saying is, look, if you really think this is a catastrophe in the making, why have we taken off the table the kinds of solutions, like geo-engineering, which can give us immediate and cheap potential solutions to the problem.

Ryssdal: Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt are the authors first of "Freakonomics." But also "Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance." Guys, thanks a lot for your time.

DUBNER AND LEAVITT: Thank you, Kai. It's been a pleasure.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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I hate when "scientists" are unaware of confounding variables. Perhaps if you went to the subway and gave people ten dollars before asking for more money then you'd get similar results. And of course this is repeated in sales and politics. If you give someone money, they feel a need to repeat.

Your interview with the authors of Superfreakonomics was an especially bad example of reporting a controversy without educating your listeners about the facts. You allowed the authors to mischaracterize their critics as politicized opponents of low-cost, geoengineering solutions to global warming without any context or rebuttal.
In fact, geoengineering would be a dangerous planetary experiment designed to mask the continued build-up of greenhouse gas pollutants rather than reducing those pollutants. For example, the proposal to pump new pollutants (sulfate particles) into the atmosphere to diminish the warming effects of greenhouse gas pollutants would have serious, sometimes unforeseeable consequences for all who live on the planet. At a minimum, spraying sulfates in the sky would compound ocean acidification from rising CO2 levels, reduce solar energy reaching plants and solar panels, and paint our descendents into an increasingly dangerous corner since any failure to keep pumping sulfates into the atmosphere would allow ever-rising CO2 levels to trigger more abrupt climate change than we are facing now. What international institution is going to compensate the injured and guarantee that the chemical screen will be maintained for the hundreds of years needed to bring CO2 levels back to acceptable levels? Putting sun screens in outer space would raise similar mixes of foreseeable and unforeseen dangers.
The futures of our planet and our children are far too important to leave global warming to lazy reporting of manufactured controversies, particularly when there are polluters and authors who profit from obscuring the strong scientific consensus that we must rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions.

There are multitude quick fix ideas for to the global warming problem I’ve heard about. The big problem with cheap quick fix approach is that it doesn’t last and can’t address the huge problem we have ahead of us at its root. There will be more and more of us to populate this planet, and we just keep on consuming while the Earth’s limited resources keep shrinking. Geo-engineering’s quick fix message is telling us: ‘no worries, you can just move on with your irresponsible consumer habits, and the scientists will figure out some magic solutions to save the planet.’ This is just fundamentally wrong and won’t add up in the long run.

It’s very simple and not that expensive: be efficient, use alternative energy sources when possible, and be less wasteful.

Does anyone else find it disturbingly ironic that two authors whose apparent thesis is that unintended consequences can be devastatingly unpredictable are advocating something like geoengineering? Caldeira seems to support geoengineering as something worth researching and understanding, but not as a shortcut or replacement to drastically reducing CO2 emissions. After listening to this interview, I am still unclear on what Leavitt and Dubner are trying to say.

I think Kai Rysdall owes the listening audience a correction, or at the very least a clarification of the howler he allowed Mr. Leavitt to disseminate in this program. His version of the Dictator Game and how he looked for behavior in the real world is a total deception. I suggest you contact somebody like Richard Thaler at the University of Chicago, or Robert Frank at Cornell, to get it right, or for that matter any of the leading authorities on behavioral economics. I wonder what might have been Mr. Leavitt ulterior motives, ideology? Or if you have the time go to Wikepedia and look up the entries on the Dictator Game (also de ultimatum game), and see what Mr. Leavitt's observation on the subway have anything to do with it, and notice all it not necessarily have to do with altruism, but maybe a lot to do with fairness .

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