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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.