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.


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


"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.


Posted by Kinglink "This posting isn't about why is the Chinese has a disproportionate male to female population. This posting is to applaud a research who did something rare, admit fault."

Yes, but how significant was the error? Did it account for 5%, 50% or 120% of the variance?

"There's a lot of people even in the science community that wouldn't even test opposing theory, and I have to say it's great to hear there's still actual researchers, versus those who treat their science as a religion."

I think you grossly overstate the problem. This is more like a description of politicians and their religious supporters.


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.

someone who wishes integrity was contagious.

She will never get a job in the Bush administration.

A. Stevens

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.


This posting isn't about why is the Chinese has a disproportionate male to female population. This posting is to applaud a research who did something rare, admit fault.

There's a lot of people even in the science community that wouldn't even test opposing theory, and I have to say it's great to hear there's still actual researchers, versus those who treat their science as a religion.

robyn ann

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

S. Heaton

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.


#4 said: "She will never get a job in the Bush administration."

Unfortunately most politicians of whatever party or ideology subscribe to the "never admit fault" principle. The reason? It gives your enemies something to bludgeon you with, and disappoints your own followers (and the more ardently they follow you, the greater their disappointment).

Politicians are known to go so far as to resign in disgrace, yet STILL refuse to admit their wrongdoing, even though the whole planet knows what it is (e.g. ex-governor Spitzer, who was a Democrat).

A. Stevens

@ S. Heaton #17: That is exactly my point: People keep track of material inside their discipline.

So here's the real lesson for young researchers from Emily's experience: explore a topic that nobody in your own discipline knows well. You'll be treated like a star in your own discipline (and its most popular blog).

Who cares if researchers in other disciplines cry foul. You will still do very well for yourself and get credit for both: the initial screw-up, and your necessary correction.

Nicholas Weaver

I would hope that such honesty isn't suprising, at least it shouldn't be.

a) You get another publication out of it.

b) You maintain intellectual integrity.

Heck, my dissertation has an appendix which I like to refer to as "Why this dissertation was a stupid idea".


This might explain part of the imbalance but how much?

The article does nothing to illuminate this.

Everyone seems eager to embrace the idea that infanticide and selective abortion is not occurring when there is much evidence that it is.


"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."

I don't doubt this, but it doesn't bode well for any findings in any field. Too many people don't realize how true this is and the result is the closed-minded thinking, bipartisanship, and extemism that pervades modern society.

I would echo Phil's (#8) sentiments that really this is what she *should* have done, but I guess it really does deserve extra praise since so many other "experts" cannot come to terms with their past mistakes and biases.


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.

S. Heaton

A. Stevens @3, would you be willing to elaborate? Is the main point of contention about the contribution of infanticide or something about the validity of the hepatitis explanation?

I certainly don't disagree with your overarching point, but I would also not condemn these individuals either. This is simply part of a cross-disciplinary exploration. I certainly don't see public health researchers making consistent use of outside research. Part of the reason for this is because it's almost impossible to keep up with thousands of papers in all these fields. The best that one can do is write for an audience that they know and let the market of those who care scrutinize the claim.


Thanks for pointing this out. And thanks Emily. The world (especially the U.S.) could use more people who are willing to reconsider their opinions and / or admit when they are wrong - at all levels of society.


I too am a young researcher (not running my own ship yet, but someday...) and I say BRAVO to Emily for having the guts to just say she was wrong, publish a correction, and move on. I can't actually think of any other occasion where I've read or heard about that. Usually researchers either claim others "misinterpreted" the finding and use that mask to hold up a "clearer" (i.e., often completely different) explanation... or just resort to fighting like children over a toy, the chief difference being that scientists use bigger words and longer sentences. (Every now and then a reasoned debate emerges, but the far more common result is something like "You're stupid and wrong!" "No, YOU'RE stupid and wrong!" "Oh yeah? Well, you're stupider and wronger!" "Am not!" "Am too!")

No doubt some researchers will see this as a sign of weakness on Emily's part, but then, some researchers probably think our dear Mr. Levitt is a sellout and a hack for writing this blog :)


Erik Hovland

I am getting that creepy feeling. I have the freakonomics desk calendar and on May 21st the factoid was this very piece from Emily Oster.

BTW, I bought the desk calendar in late January. At a steep discount. Just using the skills I learned from this blog.

qian fei(China)

I really admire what Emily Oster has done. If you wanna do some contributions to your academic field, the best policy is to be honest to it. However, that's what our Chinese scholars are lack of right now, and what we should learn from Emliy Oster.