An Academic Does the Right Thing

A few years back Dubner and I wrote a piece on Slate heralding a remarkable young economist, Emily Oster. She has continued to do great work.

She also has done something incredibly rare for an academic economist: she has admitted she was wrong.

In places like India and China, there are many “missing women.” In other words, the sex ratios in those places are out of whack. This is especially true now with the availability of ultrasound machines to aid in sex-selective abortion, but it was true long before that technology became available.

Emily wrote a paper arguing that high rates of Hepatitis B in China explained a large part of the missing women puzzle. Medical data suggested women with Hepatitis B gave birth to more sons — many women in China are infected, thus too many sons. It seemed like a crazy theory when I first heard it, but she put together extremely compelling evidence from a variety of sources to support her argument. Eventually we published it in the Journal of Political Economy, where I was an editor.

Then along came a host of other academics, including my friend and former student Ming-jen Lin, who gathered data from new sources that didn’t support Emily’s conclusions. Usually, these debates become quite acrimonious and linger on until no one cares any more. Certainly no one would admit they were wrong.

Much to Emily’s credit, however, she hit on a way to run a new study that could provide a “definitive” (or as definitive as you can get with this sort of social science research). She gathered new data in China, and after she analyzed it, she found that it did not support her conclusions. So she wrote a paper saying exactly that.

I have great admiration for her doing this. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t have done the same thing. They wouldn’t have undertaken a study that could show their biggest result was wrong, and if they found a negative result, they would try to bury it.

Also, hats off to Justin Lahart at the Wall Street Journal who wrote this article on the topic. Here are the key papers.

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  1. robyn ann says:

    right or wrong–when it comes to social science, honesty is the best policy. It makes for progress.

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  2. S. Heaton says:

    Absolutely — I’m really glad that a senior guy like Levitt takes the time to encourage young researchers to stay committed to looking for truth rather than trying to take the road to self-promotion. It’s not like her paper wasn’t done to the highest standard (hence a JPE publication) — new ideas come to light and you check them to see if they have better explanatory power. It’s really a case of science working well. We would all be worse off had she not proposed the idea and made others think very hard about th problem.

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  3. A. Stevens says:

    This is one interpretation. Another would be that neither Emily’s thesis advisers nor her editors did a good enough check of her initial research. She might have done great economic work, but she was looking at issues that clearly fall into the field of public health. As Tim Harford has documented in the Financial Times, none of her advisers or editors bothered checking with public health experts, who would have pointed to problems in her work that were not apparent to economists.

    Emily is doing the right thing now. She, her advisers and her editors did not do the right thing back then. In that light, her actions are the bare minimum to salvage her reputation in the field of public health, even as economists and the WSJ hail her as a hero.

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  4. jblog says:

    It’s called integrity, and it’s a shame and somewhat ironic that it’s become so “incredibly rare” in academia that it requires such attention as your blogpost.

    Good for Oster — I hope she can serve as an inspiration and example to others.

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  5. someone who wishes integrity was contagious. says:

    She will never get a job in the Bush administration.

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  6. kwk says:

    A scientist follows the scientific method. Self congratulatory back-slapping ensues.

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  7. jblog says:

    “She will never get a job in the Bush administration.”

    Wow, um, non sequitur?

    From the looks of things, she wouldn’t be able to work in a Clinton or Obama administration either. But I hardly see how that’s relevant to this discussion.

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  8. Phil says:

    So, an academic changed her mind on the basis of new evidence.

    Is that so rare that it requires such heavy praise? Isn’t that supposed to be the way things work under the scientific method?

    My respect for academics just went down a couple of notches.

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