Emily Oster, Girl Genius?

Readers of this blog may be aware of the creative research of Emily Oster. She is a young empirical economist at the Becker Center for Chicago Price Theory, which is also Levitt’s primary research home. A good while back, we wrote about Oster’s investigation of the 100 million “missing women” of Asia, in which she argued that Hepatitis B is one of the main causes of the huge gender gap, along with the more nefarious (and commonly cited) causes like selective abortion, selective infanticide, and various other forms of misogyny.

Now Oster is getting some more ink for another fascinating and controversial argument. The subject this time is AIDS in Africa, and the outlet is Esquire magazine. Here is Oster’s own description of how she approached this issue. I think it illustrates well why her work is so compelling.

When I began studying the HIV epidemic in Africa a few years ago, there were few other economists working on the topic and almost none on the specific issues that interested me. It’s not that the questions I wanted to answer weren’t being asked. They were. But they were being asked by anthropologists, sociologists, and public-health officials.

That’s an important distinction. These disciplines believe that cultural differences-differences in how entire groups of people think and act-account for broader social and regional trends. AIDS became a disaster in Africa, the thinking goes, because Africans didn’t know how to deal with it.

Economists like me don’t trust that argument. We assume everyone is fundamentally alike; we believe circumstances, not culture, drive people’s decisions, including decisions about sex and disease.

I’ve studied the epidemic from that perspective. I’m one of the few people who have done so. And I’ve learned that a lot of what we’ve been told about it is wrong. Below are three things the world needs to know about AIDS in Africa.

Here are the three things that Oster cites:

1. It’s the wrong disease to attack.
2. It won’t disappear until poverty does.
3. There is less of it than we thought, but it’s spreading as fast as ever.

But do yourself a favor and read the entire article, since the meat is in the details.


Great post, but the title is off-putting. Ms. Oster is a woman I'm sure and referring to her as a "girl" really does take something away from her, in spite of the allusion to a common phrase.


I was going to say the same thing MBuddle did, but he beat me to it: why the tag "girl genius" instead of maybe "young genius" or just "genius"?


Can you provide links to the actual research that the article cites? It's impossible to evaluate the validity of her claims without seeing the evidence.


I think her second point is quite valid in that Aids is not a threat in comparison to daily survival therefore people are less likely to change their behaviour. It is human nature to measure a threat by the difference from the norm.

The rest is nothing that hasn't been said before. It would be interesting to see her analysis of mortality rates though since I think that 3 times too high is a bit off the mark.


Speaking of AIDS transmission rates, I wonder how much the Catholic church's practice of telling Africans that condoms don't inhibit the spread of HIV (they claim that HIV freely moves through pores in the condom, which is false) has contributed to the spread of AIDS. Workers in Africa say that because of this misinformation, they have a hard time convincing people that condoms actually do reduce the spread of AIDS.


"Girl Genius" is a play on "Boy Genius", as in "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius". In addition, the Esquire article itself starts by pointing out how young she is.


When I first saw the title, I thought, "How old is she, 15?" Although, "Emily Oster, Girl Genius?" does make a much more catchy title than "Emily Oster, Woman Genius?", "Emily Oster, Female Genius?", or simply "Emily Oster".

sean perkins

I too think that the mortality rate comparison is a bit fishy. I'd like to see more of it- and I think you can from the link you provide to Emily's page at UChicago (click on the tab for "papers").

What I think she should've done, just from the Esquire article, is to compare AIDS-related deaths in Africa (or whichever country) to the "expected" death rate FOR THAT COUNTRY/NATION. It would answer the question of AIDS-related deaths as compared in that nation. This goes along with her second point that ridding poverty will help rid AIDS, because nations with different poverty levels have different death rates as well.


Emily Osters papers are here:



Mrs. Oster, if you remember, was the girl who talked to herself in her crib when she was a baby. That led her parents to conclude something about child development. It was in a recent blog post about making sure not to conclude fact from one source.

I think that's what Dubner is referring to.


I'm a boy genius in my industry. I'm only 34.


I had the pleasure of working with Emily during her time at Analysis Group. While I guess I didn't fully appreciate her genius at the time, I did appreciate her sarcastic sense of humor.
I also remember her amazement on discovering, upon first tasting it, that she liked McDonald's burgers. :)


Westerners in general, and economists in particular, are already too confident that they don't actually have to know anything in detail about the various cultures they opine about. Dr. Oster telling them that they don't have to know much about Africa to understand the AIDS epidemic because everybody is the same is a formula for disastrous advice about a matter of life and death.

The problem with understanding AIDS in Africa is that African sexual / family patterns tend to be quite different from middle class Western patterns. Helen Epstein recently pointed out that attempts to model the spread of AIDS in Africa routinely failed because Western modelers didn't understand the common African pattern of "multiple concurrent partners." Epstein wrote in the New York Review of Books:

"Africans are at higher risk of AIDS than people elsewhere not because they have so many partners, but because they often have more than one long-term partner at a time."

You can read Epstein's important NYRoB article at:




I read her methods and I am concerned about her deduction of prevelence based on mortality data. By estimating current infection rates based on number of deaths, it doesn't take into enough consideration the changes in managing the infection. If time to death in the 80's is vastly different than in the 90's which is likely, then this will skew her prevelence numbers... this could impact the analysis of drops in Ugandan rates of infection. I agree that ABC doesn't work there, but locking down exports won't work that much better than a condom. Sure, target the transport workers - but that's not novel.

As an aside, as I felt I needed to not consider it in evaluating her content, she writes like an economist. She's the flip side of anthropologists and sociologists. Where they attribute too much to people factors, she's correlating things without enough consideration of those areas. If you don't at least write about the social or psychological aspects, it makes it seem like the only way you can analyze a situation is through some vector algebra. Causal, some, but what about the effects of wealth and power within an impoverished society experiencing globalization. It's not all truckers and prostitutes... sometimes it's the horny guy who sold his mother down the river.



I think she is just theorizing at this point based on a very limited amount of data. So with that in mind I believe that her theory should be looked at something that researchers and statisticians should look to prove or disprove, which would then provide the copious amounts of data required to properly assess the situation and give better insight to quality solutions. At the end of the day though, the poverty situation is rather dire and using the AIDS epidemic to provide motivation to solving the poverty problem is a pretty creative method/angle.

Phat Tony

I find the superficial and skeptical comments appalling, and a measure of the "intellectual" egotism that is so prevalent in today's America. If all you can do is criticize Oster's ideas in 25 words or less, you are contributing to the mindset that the conventional view is the correct one. Well, look where THAT has gotten us.


Not to mention that Emily Oster is also very cute.


Phat Tony -

It is that very skepticism these readers are employing that Emily herself fuels her research with. We must continue to analyze and break apart arguments to find their validity. Skepticism should breed further skepticism that is based on consideration of both sides, and I don't find that these comments have been superficial but only ask to see more evidence. Reasonable request.


Great post, but the title is off-putting. Ms. Oster is a woman I'm sure and referring to her as a "girl" really does take something away from her, in spite of the allusion to a common phrase.


I was going to say the same thing MBuddle did, but he beat me to it: why the tag "girl genius" instead of maybe "young genius" or just "genius"?