The “Sole Purpose” of SuperFreakonomics

Here is a multiple choice question for you.

Read the following passage, taken from SuperFreakonomics:

If you know someone in southeastern Uganda who is having a baby next year, you should hope with all your heart that the baby isn’t born in May. If so, it will be roughly 20 percent more likely to have visual, hearing, or learning disabilities as an adult.

Three years from now, however, May would be a fine month to have a baby. But the danger will have only shifted, not disappeared; April would now be the cruelest month.

What can possibly account for this bizarre pattern? Before you answer, consider this: the same pattern has been identified halfway across the world, in Michigan. In fact, a May birth in Michigan might carry an even greater risk than in Uganda.

The economists Douglas Almond and Bhashkar Mazumder have a simple answer for this strange and troubling phenomenon: Ramadan.

Question: A reasonable person would construe that the sole purpose of this passage is to:

  1. Bring a fatwa down on Stephen Dubner.
  2. Demonstrate how the insightful use of statistics can help us to understand a complex world.
  3. Provide the basis for an interesting cocktail party conversation.
  4. Achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes, riots, or security threat group activity.

The correct answer is number 4, at least according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

An inmate there, Thomas Giesberg, recently attempted to order a copy of SuperFreakonomics from Amazon. Much to his surprise, the prison intercepted the book and would not allow it to be delivered to him because it deemed sections of SuperFreakonomics to be “written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes, riots, or security threat group activity.” The pages they cited in the book were 57, 59, 60, and 97. The passage excerpted above on Ramadan was the first of these passages.

Mr. Giesberg was kind enough to forward me a copy of the form that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice uses to notify inmates of books that have been denied. There are six different reasons that a book can be denied: 1) it contains contraband, 2) it contains information regarding the manufacture of explosives, weapons, or drugs, 3) the breakdown of prisons thing mentioned above, 4) it would encourage deviant criminal sexual behavior, 5) it contains sexually explicit images, and 6) it contains material on how to avoid detection of criminal schemes.

The irony is that SuperFreakonomics does violate point 6 on the list. We tell terrorists they should buy life insurance. A reasonable person might also say that SuperFreakonomics violates point 4, because after reading about Allie, the high-end call girl, some women might be encouraged to switch careers. (And for what it’s worth, Freakonomics should also be banned on point 2 because we describe how to make crack cocaine.)

I’m sending Mr. Giesberg a signed copy of SuperFreakonomics for his troubles. Let’s see if the prison officials at least deny him access to the book for the right reasons this time around.

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  1. Joe Smith says:

    The real reason for the passage is of course number 5:

    5) deliberately provocative to all and offensive to some in the hope of earning more money for the authors.

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  2. Darragh says:

    Does someone in the Texas prison system read every book mailed to inmates? What a cool job!

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    I thought bringing books into prison was banned after it was discovered that LSD could be dropped on certain pages. “Hey, sweetie, eat pages 37, 59, 75, 88 and 102.”

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  4. Paul Clapham says:

    I wouldn’t construe #4 as the sole purpose of the passage , but then the Texas prison folks didn’t either. They construed it as one possible effect of the passage.

    That doesn’t seem likely to me, but then I know nothing about prison management.

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  5. Owen says:

    Do you think they even looked past the cover? It says “SUICIDE BOMBERS” in large print. That would be enough to keep it out.

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  6. sarahmas says:

    I haven’t read SF yet – it’s on the list! Have you talked to Dan Savage about the economics of high end escorts? He’s got a great chapter on their industry in Skipping Towards Gomorrah.

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  7. macgregor grummet says:

    Just read Freakonomics and wanted to send the authors a couple of thoughts. I found the book fascinating. I like the way you think.
    In regard to abortion and lower crime rates, you may be interested to know that for the last 3 or 4 years the Australian government had been handing out a so-called baby bonus. At first it was $3000 then $4000 and I think it is now $5000. According to a person from Family and Community Services here in South Australia, there is no doubt that some people with little money have had babies purely to receive the money, often to buy electrical gear such as plasma tvs. I wonder if in about 15 more years we will see a steep increase in crime given that many babies are only being born for their monetary value.
    Also I was amazed to read the list of boys’ names you predict will be popular in 2015. My name was on it despite the fact I have never in my 43 years come across someone with my name – Macgregor. Were my parents trendsetters? If so it’s taken a while to catch on!

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  8. Chris McCracken says:

    Am I a little ill for crossing my fingers and hoping the answer was Fatwah?

    I guess Fatwahs are a little bit nineties, after all.

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