'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
Sunday 03 October 2010
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
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'
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