Seven Million Copies Sold

Once in a while, we get a report from our publishers about how many copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics have been sold around the world. Last we heard -- it was a while ago -- we were at 5 million.

The latest report tells us we've just breached the 7 million mark. Here's a rough breakdown:
• United States: 4.4 million
•United Kingdom: 1.65 million
•Translated editions: 1 million

With the global population at around 7 billion, those 7 million copies represent a nice round number: 1 book sold for every 1,000 people on the planet.

With Think Like a Freak coming out next week, I hope we get to 10 million copies before there are 10 billion people on Earth.

The Unsustainable Economics of Cancer Drugs

In New York magazine, Steve Hall lays out the good, bad, and the ugly of cancer-drug economics. Warning: it is mostly bad and ugly.

The pharmacist e-mailed the numbers, and Saltz stared at the figures on his computer screen. Zaltrap, the drug that was extremely similar to Avastin, cost roughly $11,000 a month. (And because that extra 42 days wouldn’t be possible without taking the drug for, say, seven months before—which was roughly what was happening in clinical trials—the price for that six-week life extension could be as high as $75,000.)

“Wow,” he said to himself, “that’s a deal-changer for me.”

That may not seem like a heretical statement, but the unspoken rule in American health care is that doctors should never consider the cost of a medicine that might be beneficial to patients. When the FDA approves a new cancer drug, it analyzes safety and effectiveness only. Medicare is obliged to reimburse payment for the drug, and private insurers in most states must cover the cost. Any doctor who considers cost—or the value of a costly drug—risks being accused of “rationing” health care.

SuperFreakonomics E-Book on Sale for $3.99

HarperCollins is running a sale on the SuperFreakonomics e-book for the next few weeks, offering it via all digital vendors for $3.99. The book's total worldwide sales are > 1 million.

Another Look at an Unorthodox Hurricane-Prevention Idea

Very interesting backgrounder on Stephen Salter, the British scientist who, in the course of trying to turn ocean waves into electric power, discovered a potential way to prevent, or at least limit, the impact of hurricanes:

Devastating tropical storms of the kind that battered the U.S. last week could be weakened and rendered less deadly using a simple and cheap technology based on a surprising component – old car tyres.

One of Britain's leading marine engineers, Stephen Salter, emeritus professor of engineering design at Edinburgh university and a global pioneer of wave power research, has patented with Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold the idea of using thousands of tyres lashed together to support giant plastic tubes which extend 100m deep into the ocean.

Wave action on the ocean surface would force warm surface water down into the deeper ocean. If non-return valves were used, he says, the result would be to mix the waters and cool the surface temperature of the ocean to under 26.5C, the critical temperature at which hurricanes form.

This is the same hurricane-prevention invention we discussed in a brief Freakonomics Radio segment and in greater depth in SuperFreakonomics:

Motorcycle Deaths Hold Steady

In SuperFreakonomics: The Illustrated Edition, we explored the bizarre, unintended consequence of repealing motorcycle helmet laws: an increase in human organs available for transplantation.

A new report shows that motorcycle deaths are not dropping. From the Wall Street Journal

A report released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) finds that no progress was made in reducing motorcyclist deaths in 2011. Based upon preliminary data from 50 states and the District of Columbia, GHSA projects that motorcycle fatalities remained at about 4,500 in 2011, the same level as 2010. Meanwhile, earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that overall motor vehicle fatalities declined 1.7 percent in 2011, reaching their lowest level since 1949. Motorcycle deaths remain one of the few areas in highway safety where progress is not being made.

Freakonomics: What Went Right? Responding to Wrong-Headed Attacks

Warning: what follows is a horribly long, inside-baseball post that most people will likely have little interest in reading, and which I had little interest in writing. But it did need to be written. Apologies for the length and the indulgence; we will soon return to our regular programming.

*     *     * 

I. Going on the attack is generally more fun, profitable, and attention-getting than playing defense. Politicians know this; athletes know it; even academics know it. Or perhaps I should say that especially academics know it?

Given the nature of the Freakonomics work that Steve Levitt and I do, we get our fair share of critiques. Some are ideological or political; others are emotional.

We generally look over such critiques to see if they contain worthwhile feedback, or point to an error in need of correction. But for the most part, we tend to not reply to critiques. It seems only fair to let critics have their say (as writers, we’ve already had ours). Furthermore, spending one’s time responding to wayward attacks is the kind of chore you’d rather skip in order to get on with your work.

But occasionally an attack is so spectacularly ridiculous, so riddled with errors and mangled logic, that it’s worth addressing.

The following essay responds to two such attacks. The first one was relatively minor, a recent blog post written by a Yale professor. The second was more substantial, an essay by a pair of statisticians in American Scientist. Feel free to skip ahead to that one (at section III below), or buckle up for the whole bumpy ride.

Volcanoes and the Little Ice Age

We wrote in SuperFreakonomics about how past volcanic eruptions have resulted in a temporarily cooler planet, thanks to the release of sulfuric ash into the atmosphere. New research indicates that a series of volcanic eruptions may have caused the Little Ice Age:

The study, led by the University of Colorado Boulder with co-authors at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other organizations, suggests that an unusual, 50-year-long episode of four massive tropical volcanic eruptions triggered the Little Ice Age between 1275 and 1300 A.D. The persistence of cold summers following the eruptions is best explained by a subsequent expansion of sea ice and a related weakening of Atlantic currents, according to computer simulations conducted for the study.

Good Climate News: The "Methane Time Bomb" Apparently Isn't

"At least one nightmare scenario can be safely crossed off worst-case climate list," Andy Revkin writes by e-mail. "Even with intense ocean warming through this millennium, thawing won't reach the big subsea methane deposits. There were ample signs this was overblown but new work goes farther."

He has the full story on his Dot Earth blog:

Given that methane, molecule for molecule, has at least 20 times the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide, it’s important to get a handle on whether these are new releases, the first foretaste of some great outburst from thawing sea-bed stores of the gas, or simply a longstanding phenomenon newly observed.

If you read the Independent of Britain, you’d certainly be thinking the worst. The newspaper has led the charge in fomenting worry over the gas emissions, with portentous, and remarkably similar, stories in 2008 and this week.

If you read geophysical journals and survey scientists tracking past and future methane emissions, you get an entirely different picture. ...:

[T]he authors found that roughly 1 meter of the subsurface permafrost thawed in the past 25 years, adding to the 25 meters of already thawed soil. Forecasting the expected future permafrost thaw, the authors found that even under the most extreme climatic scenario tested this thawed soil growth will not exceed 10 meters by 2100 or 50 meters by the turn of the next millennium. The authors note that the bulk of the methane stores in the east Siberian shelf are trapped roughly 200 meters below the seafloor… [Read the rest.]

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate and Author of Thinking, Fast and Slow Takes Your Questions

One of the first times I met Danny Kahneman was over dinner, just after SuperFreakonomics was published. Shortly after we were introduced, Danny said, “I enjoyed your new book. It will change the future of the world.” I beamed with pride at this compliment. Danny, however, was not done speaking. “It will change the future of the world. And not for the better.” While I’m sure many people would agree with his last sentence, he was the only person who ever said it to my face!

If you don’t know the name, Danny Kahneman is the non-economist who has had the greatest influence on economics of any non-economist who ever lived. A psychologist, he’s the only non-economist to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, for his pioneering work in behavioral economics. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that he is among the 50 most influential economic thinkers of all time, and among the ten most influential living economic thinkers.

The Silver Lining of More Cancer Deaths

A National Post graphic does a good job showing causes of death across Canada by percentage, and notes that, for the first time, cancer is the leading cause in every province, responsible for about 30 percent of all deaths. That is a heartbreaking number, not least because cancer is a disease (or set of diseases, really) about which so much is still unknown.

As we wrote in a section of SuperFreakonomics called "We're still getting our butts kicked by cancer," seeing cancer statistics like this might naturally lead one to conclude that the "war on cancer" has been a dismal failure. That, however, would be an overstatement. While it's true that we are, as one oncologist told us, "still getting our butts kicked," there is somewhat of a silver lining in the cancer death rate.