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.

Joe Smith

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.


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

Eric M. Jones

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."

Paul Clapham

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.


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


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.

macgregor grummet

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!


Chris McCracken

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.

dan strayer

Sounds like if you work for the Texas DCJ, you have a 20% greater chance of learning disabilities as an adult.


I'm slowly but surely making my way through the book and actually just got through that passage about Uganda/Michigan. I found the conclusion kind of bizarre seeing as pregnant women are not supposed to fast during Ramadan. Also interesting to know that prisoners can use Amazon (Something my parents couldn't even use back in Saudi until a few years ago!).


I was hoping that the popularization of the knowledge about the Ramadan fast might help people modify their behavior. Women have usually been exempted from the most rigorous religious observances. Women are pregnant only a few years of their lives. I think Islam should discourage pregnant women from undertaking the Ramadan fast.
Why haven't they been discouraged so far. First, Islam, more than many religions, was a religion where men and woman submit equally to god. Second, women have pregnancies in the prime of their lives and are less likely to notice the small deficits in energy from fasting that make such a difference to a fetus. Third, there is such a long time between fast and birth and no one thought to ask the question or collect the statistics.


What rule would be violated if one sent the prisoner the Amazon Kindle instead?


Haven't read the book, but I would guess that this is due to women who do not yet know they are pregnant fasting during early development of the baby, rather than heavily-pregnant women ignoring their special dispensation and fasting anyway.

Eric M. Jones

--12 --Owinok...

You have invented another business opportunity.

There are transparent-case TVs made especially for use in prisons. Somebody should offer clear case kindles for use in prisons.


To Isra (#10) and Jackie (#11) -

Pregnant women are exempt from fasting during Ramadan. However, they have to *know* they are pregnant. For a woman having a baby in May of this year, she would have gotten pregnant in August, just before Ramadan started. She probably would have fasted, not knowing until sometime during the month that she was pregnant.

Le Boucher

Actually, pregnant women are not required to fast. The Prophet said "Allaah has exempted the traveller from the obligation of fasting and has reduced the prayer by half for him, and has exempted pregnant and breastfeeding women from the obligation of fasting." (Narrated by Al Bukhari, Muslim and others). If these women are fasting although it may harm the child, then it is out of ignorance!

Nancy Drew

I've worked with a lot of observant Muslim women from various countries and many of them fasted even while knowing they were pregnant--the fast ends at sunset each day, so they would not go days on end without consuming food, but would confine their consumption to the evening hours.


I supply books to Texas prison libraries through my non-profit, Reading With Conviction (please donate at !) So I have bumped into most of these rules.

To those speculating about ordering books: basically, an offender can only acquire books by purchasing them directly from a major retailer via mail order. It is assumed that buying from or provides a decent amount of protection from chicanery.

As with any system that has a bureaucracy that bans books based on content, there are bound to be many interesting, mistaken, or controversial decisions made by overworked state employees. I don't know how many people would feel comfortable with the alternative, which would be to allow offenders access to any and all printed material.

Interestingly, my most-requested items from 2009 were:

o Star Trek novels
o PDRs
o The Twilight series
o Westerns

- Mark



I have to agree with Mr. Smith that it's #5.


Well here is the thing with fasting while pregnant during Ramadan, it is actually not required for a pregnant woman to fast , also people who are ill or those who are traveling its also not required.
I read the book few months ago,