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.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot