Allen Lane £20 (270pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Superfreakonomics, By Steven D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner

In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner pulled off an extraordinary trick. They took behavioural microeconomics and the intricate mathematical analysis of very large databases and made a bestselling book of it. Levitt's work is genuinely original, pleasingly rooted in empirical research. It deploys an interesting take on models of incentives and disincentives that recognises how diverse and interactive those currencies are. Dubner gave human form, narrative structure and a good dose of gee-whizzery to the unexpected counter-intuitive results that Levitt's analysis revealed.

Now they're back with more of the same. An inebriated friend decides to walk home after partying rather than drive over the limit. Good idea? Not at all; analysis of driving and pedestrian fatalities in the US reveals that you are many times more likely to be killed walking drunk than driving drunk. Similarly, despite regular media panics around the dangers of sharks, the likelihood of being killed or injured by one is considerably less than of being killed by an elephant. But in media markets elephants means Dumbo and sharks mean Jaws - and Jaws sells papers.

People, like editors, respond to those kinds of incentives. Smart authors of economics books who want to reach a bigger audience and know that there's a market for tales of sex will act accordingly. Thus Superfreakonomics opens with the microeconomics of prostitution in Chicago. Employing prostitutes to pay and interview other prostitutes after seeing a client allowed the authors to amass an enormous and reliable data asset on everything from how much prostitutes stole from clients, to what sex act at what price to a client of what race was transacted.

Compared to the early 20th century, an era for which they have some comparable data, the price of sex and the income of prostitutes have fallen; in the case of oral sex, the fall has been precipitous. Demand overall has fallen, because of the transformation in sexual mores. The normalisation of oral sex has removed a taboo tax.

Pimps, it appears, add real value. Prostitutes who work for them receive higher wages for less sex, and suffer lower levels of arrest and client violence. They are more likely to have sex with a police officer than to be arrested by one. There are sharp spikes in demand for sex around the 4 July holidays; this raises prices, which mobilises a part-time army of workers.

Cute, but for me the serious point of the research was obscured by this kind of aside. The incomes available to predominantly working-class African American women in Chicago remain so poor that prostitution, given all its disbenefits, remains a viable option for many. How and why the nexus of inequality should be so concentrated on these women, and so unamenable to change, should not be left unexamined.

I was left similarly engaged and queasy by their work on Islamic terrorists. Suicide bombers should buy life insurance because it offers powerful disguise when the authorities come trawling through their financial transactions. Extensive profiling by banks reveals that a cluster of around 20 specific actions (big opening deposits, many small withdrawals, not buying life insurance) are together a very high indicator of subversive activity.

Contrary to the thesis that poverty and desperation creates willing martyrs, suicide bombers do not generally come from poor families or lack education. Their deeds might be better thought of as "civic action on steroids". But does that mean that the grinding poverty and inequalities of the Middle East and Western Asia are not factors in the emergence of jihadism? This reliance on statistical correlation, alongside the bracketing of structural and cultural questions, is the strength and weakness of the book. It leads to some brilliant questions – such as why, given that kids occupy rear seats in cars most of the time, do we not redesign seat belts to fit them rather than use child seats, so rarely fitted correctly? On the other hand, there is a kind of glibness at work. The arrival of oil certainly saved Western cities from the environmental crisis caused by horse-drawn transportation and its mountains of organic waste, and the switch to mineral lubrication oils saved the whale from extinction. But to suggest that "oil was a cheap and simple fix" is to bracket so much that my incentive to agree with them collapsed.

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

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star