Freakonomics Author Talks About His New Book

Helen of Troy had the face that launched a thousand ships; Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner had the book that launched a thousand copycat bestsellers. Including, inevitably, their own. The duo that brought you Freakonomics, with its dismal-science approach to crack-cocaine dealers and baby names, is back this month with a sequel to the phenomenal bestseller: SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. NEWSWEEK's Barrett Sheridan spoke with Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, about the controversy over geoengineering, how to get a college student to do anything, and more. Excerpts:

SuperFreakonomics includes a chapter on global warming, focusing especially on geoengineering, a blanket term for technologies that could be used to intentionally alter the earth's climate. One much-discussed idea would involve shooting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to block the sun's rays. The reaction in the blogosphere has been intense and mostly negative, with a lot of people saying the book minimizes and distorts the problem of global warming. What's your response?
A few people who have a particular agenda have said statements that are almost categorically false. What we really say in the global-warming chapter, and what we really believe, is that the Earth is getting warmer and that it looks like it's due to human activity—although it's always harder to say why something happens than it is to simply observe that it happens. But that's not even what our chapter is about. It's about the following question: if the Earth gets too hot, what's the best way to cool it down? The conventional wisdom today is that it's by reducing carbon emissions. But that's incredibly expensive—easily trillions of dollars—and it's hard. It requires 7 billion people to change their behavior. Geoengineering proposals seem to have much more desirable properties: they're very cheap, and they're completely reversible. And if they work, we will get immediate reductions in temperatures.

And if they don't?
If they don't, you turn them off, and almost immediately any effects of having done it will disappear. This is built on really well-understood science. So whatever noise and shouting has occurred on the blogosphere, I have to be honest, I don't understand it. I just can't understand why any environmentalist who really cares about the Earth could say with a straight face that geoengineering solutions do not deserve a seat at the table.

In the book, you include a quote from the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, comparing climate-change activism to religion.
I do think that climate science is equal parts science, politics, and religion. I think that's a very fair statement to say.

SuperFreakonomics has a whole chapter dedicated to experiments on the topic of human altruism—whether we're selfish or selfless at heart. Do you come down one way or the other?
No. I think people are neither altruistic to their core nor selfish to their core. I think it's very situational. And what the research by me and [University of Chicago professor] John List has been about is trying to come up with systematic ways of understanding when people will behave altruistically and when they will not.

Is it a matter of finding the right incentives?
It's partly about incentives. But a lot of it has to do with whether it's a repeated situation. Take the example of the Old West. When a barn burned down, the community would gather around and everyone would rebuild the barn together. That certainly looks altruistic at a distance, but when you get closer, you realize people are thinking, "If I don't help the other guy build his barn, then when mine burns down, I've got no one to rebuild my barn." We also focus on the degree of scrutiny, the extent to which other people are watching your behavior and can put social pressure on you to behave in a certain way.

For instance, the way that college students participating in economics experiments might be influenced by the mere presence of a researcher.
Absolutely. One thing is for sure: if you get a college kid in a lab, you can get that student to do just about anything you want. One of the things I'm most interested in now is how to bring the experiment into the real world and do experimental variation on people who are just minding their own business in their own lives. I just think that in so many situations the lab is an artificial environment.

Behavioral economics is very much in vogue now. The authors of Nudge , a book on the topic, advised the Obama campaign. Do you think behavioral economics will have a big impact on policymaking?
In general, I'm a little bit skeptical of behavioral economics. Its importance is exaggerated. But I think of nudging as the exception. In a world that's complicated and where people are busy, simple default rules can matter a lot. Nudge is really about outright tricking people, and I think that's a great insight because sometimes it's easier to trick people than to incentivize them to change their behavior.

You're famous for making ingenious use of data on everything from sumo wrestling to abortion. Is there a data set you don't have that you would love to be able to play around with?
Not just one. There are thousands. I'm very interested, for example, in trying to learn about the long-term effects of something like Hurricane Katrina. Here's this massive catastrophe that causes tremendous harm, is incredibly disruptive to huge amounts of people, and yet we know very little about what their lives are like now. Was it a short-term disruption that they've rebounded from, or will it be a permanent shock that lasts the rest of their lives?

Do you have a guess?
My guess is the long-term ramifications are going to be a lot smaller than we think. This is important, for instance, when thinking about climate change. If people who live in Bangladesh and other low-lying areas have to move, will this be the worst thing that ever happened to them, or will they move and start a new life and, five or 10 years later, life's not too bad?

Are companies and governments more interested in having you look at their problems from a Freakonomics perspective now, thanks to the success of the books?
Because of these books I'm able to get people to listen to me. And sometimes they'll work with me. But I wouldn't say that the world has been beating down my door. It's not like I'm a puppet master who's now able to answer any question I want. Businesses always want to know how to make more money. But that's not a question that's interesting to me. I want to use a business's data to, say, catch a terrorist.