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.


Will

How about the part where you describe a more effective method of terrorism using the nineteen hijackers from 9/11? I'd hope any book that could serve as "how to become a more effective terrorist" would be banned from prisons too.

Anyway, that scenario'd make a great plot for the TV show 24.

Mike Mintz

I'm surprised to hear they wouldn't let the book in. Usually prisons only have problems with opened or used copies. A new copy from Amazon should be able to get through. Can't wait to read SuperFreakonomics!

aurmont

A RECENT OBSERVATION THAT IT IS MORE DANGEROUS TO WALK DRUNK THAN TO DRIVE DRUNK SHOULD HAVE CLARIFIED MORE DANGEROUS FOR WHOM. DRUNK DRIVERS NOT ONLY ENDANGER THEMSELVES BUT ALSO MANY OTHERS, LET THEM WALK DRUNK AND NOT!!!!DRIVE PLEASE. !!!!

Mojo Bone

aurmont, will you please stop screaming? I can barely think as it is, with all these voices in my head.

ethicalBob

Aurmont, That point is made in the book. Perhaps you should (re)? read it before shouting your comments....

Bart Molenkamp

As a retired governing governor of prisons I am more than amused about the reaction of the Texan Department of Criminal Justice. And they did not even find the hidden instructions how to make explosives?!

Mrss

There's an appendix in here that deals with the Almond et al. research basically saying it's not valid: http://ramadanfastingandpregnancy.wordpress.com/ - it's aimed at pregnant Muslim women and presents evidence from an Islamic and medical point of view.