'I'm no expert, but...': Superfreakonomics author Stephen J Dubner explains his offbeat approach

He admits that he doesn't have all the answers – but Stephen J Dubner, the journalist 'sidekick' of the 'Freakonomics' duo, tells Emily Dugan he can't wait to put their unconventional theories into practice

Eating kangaroo steak may not be most people's idea of a solution to climate change, but for Stephen J Dubner, it certainly is. The co-author of the bestselling books Freakonomics and Super-freakonomics believes that munching on a kangaroo to lower the Earth's temperature is not as barmy as it sounds.

"Kangaroos are not greenhouse-gas emitters because they don't produce methane when they break down their food," the 47-year-old New Yorker explains. "Cows and other ruminants are worse polluters than all of the transportation in the world, so all of us who try to cut down our carbon footprint by lessening our transportation would do far better by just consuming less beef. If we could all learn to love kangaroo, it would be one of the most environmentally sound dietetic changes possible."

Dubner and his co-author, the economist Steven D Levitt, have enraged everyone from climate-change activists to child-safety campaigners by applying rational economic thinking to emotive subjects. Their brand of economics has created a cult following, by answering questions that are not normally tackled with any statistical or academic rigour, such as how life insurance would make good cover for suicide bombers, or why prostitutes now charge less for oral sex.

"When most people think of economists they think of macro-economists. Macro-economists try to describe or – even harder – predict the movements of a hugely dynamic system," says Dubner. "They're like a transplant surgeon trying to simultaneously transplant every failing organ in someone's body. What we're doing is trimming the toenails."

"Trimming the toenails" has caused him a lot of controversy, but speaking in London ahead of next month's release of the illustrated edition of Superfreakonomics, Dubner does not have the appearance of a hell-raiser. A sort of Harry Potter meets Woody Allen, his dishevelled shock of curly black hair, round plastic glasses and navy woollen jumper suggest an affable academic rather than the sort of man to provoke postbags of hate mail. Yet this is precisely what Dubner has done.

He looks slightly lost in the high-ceilinged lobby of the central London hotel where he is staying, sitting among groups of polished ladies chattering over macchiatos. Although being an economist is hardly the cutting- edge of cool, journalist Dubner is probably the less glamorous member of the partnership: his economist co-writer was once described by The Wall Street Journal as "the Indiana Jones of economics" for his swashbuckling approach to the subject. So if Levitt is the whip-cracking adventurer, what does that make Dubner?

"Well..." he pauses, "There wasn't a male sidekick, was there? The only description I've read of us that really made sense to me was as Moses and Aaron. When Moses is asked to lead his people he says, 'I'm heavy of tongue,' which is interpreted to mean that either he's a poor speaker or has a stammer. At which point God says, 'Don't worry, we'll bring in your brother Aaron. He'll be your communicator.' I think that comparison works – not that Steve and I are trying to achieve anything like Moses and Aaron, but that there's the guy who's got the position from which to speak – that's Steve, who understands the world in a very interesting and unusual way – and I'm the communicator."

The religious analogy is one of many during our interview, and religion – along with economics and sport – is a subject that Dubner has returned to throughout his career. He is currently working on a book about Moses, while his first book, Turbulent Souls (1998), dealt with his Catholic upbringing and discovery of his family's Jewish past.

Economic freakery and Moses may seem wildly differing subjects, but for Dubner they are not so far apart. "Religion is a way to make order from chaos and I think economics is not dissimilar," he says. "In religion and in economics you're trying to figure out the way we perceive the world and move through it, and that's what I like to learn."

Religious analogies such as this have got him into trouble, however. The most vociferous of the complaints against him and Levitt were in response to a chapter in Superfreakonomics on climate change, which asked some unpopular questions about emissions, and compared climate-change campaigners to religious fundamentalists.

"We wrote it in a way that both acknowledged the fervour and provoked fervour from the people who were most fervent," says Dubner. "We described climate-change as a quasi-religious issue. When certain people have certain beliefs they can be unyielding, and that's really what faith is. There's a large place in the world for faith, but when it comes to a scientific, political and economic issue, dogma is not a very good place to start. The noisiest climate-change activists were predictably noisy and distraught, which missed the whole point that, whether they agree with what we're proposing or not, there are very few solutions on the table right now."

And solutions are exactly what Dubner now wants to offer. After years of asking questions, both writers are yearning to answer some. "It's all well and good to stand on the

outside of some institution or organisation and say, 'They're doing this wrong, and here's why,' but one strong desire that we both now have is actually to solve some problems. If we could apply Freakonomics thinking to problems, try to solve them and then write about it, I think that would be worthwhile."

"Freakonomics thinking" has been summarised by the authors as "conventional thinking is often wrong" – whether that be questioning the impact of good parenting on education outcomes, or suggesting that the fall in crime rates in the US in the 1990s was due in larger part to the legalisation of abortion than to police crackdowns. It is this unconventional approach to theory that they would now like to apply in practice.

"It would be great to actually raise the funding to empirically test our theories. Even if I could be involved in solving one problem in the world – because so far I've solved zero, I think – it'd be great. An obvious area to investigate would be philanthropy. Most people giving away money have very strong feelings about the problems they want to solve. The trouble is, a) the scope of the problems is often not well defined, so we don't know how bad they are or if they're the right problems to solve. And b) there's often great uncertainty as to whether the solution of giving a bunch of money is at all worthwhile. Therefore you've got billions of dollars that have been directed at problems which haven't been solved at all."

According to Dubner, the reason so many of the world's biggest problems remain unsolved is that most organisations do not experiment enough, or question the status quo. "Experimentation is something that just isn't much done by a lot of institutions – for-profit firms and not-for-profit firms – because we're set up against it. We're set up for consensus-building. In education, poverty, climate and agriculture – whatever the issue is – experimentation is key. Most of the good things that have happened in the world are a result of it – not bureaucratic consensus-building."

The only problem with all his talk of experimentation and implementation is its direct contrast to statements Dubner made 10 minutes earlier in the conversation, on being asked his opinion. "The biggest problem for me is that people who write books are inevitably cast as experts," he'd said. "Often rightfully so, but not always. Someone like me, I'm not an expert in anything. I work hard to learn as much as I can and I collaborate with someone who's an expert in a certain kind of analysis. But he's not an expert on [Freakonomics topics] the Ku Klux Klan, real estate or the science of climate change, either. It's a natural inclination for people to say, 'Well, you've written a book that's fairly clever, so how would you go about fixing our banking system? How would you go about fixing climate change or our parliamentary system?' For me that's a bit uncomfortable."

Uncomfortable it may be, but as Dubner contemplates a future of putting Freakonomic theories into practice, it is clearly not prohibitively so.

The illustrated edition of 'Superfreakonomics' is published next month

The extract

Superfreakonomics: Illustrated Edition By Steven D Levitt and Stephen J DubnerAllen Lane £20

'...Economists have traditionally assumed that the typical person makes rational decisions in line with his own self-interest. So why should this rational fellow – Homo economicus, he is usually called – give away some of his hard-earned cash to someone he doesn't know in a place he can't pronounce?... A new generation of economists decided it was time to understand altruism in the world at large'

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?