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.


I think it is a valid comment in general that economists tend to move into other fields without checking with experts in those fields. Whether Emily did this I do not know but I think it is fair comment in general. We do tend to invade other disciplines because we tend to think we have the right model to view the problem. Most of the time we do but not always.


From my experience, it's not incredibly rare in research (but it sounds like it is in economics research). Sad.

Jolly Bloger

Is it really that rare in economics? That's a little depressing. I hope (and I think) integrity and honesty is a little more common in the natural sciences.


A Stevens @18: I dont necessarily disagree with you, but it sounds from Dr. Levitt's post that the people who were "crying foul" on this were other economists, not people in public health. Is that wrong? Mabye you are talking more about her other work? I dont know much about the rest of her work(other than on this blog!).


Dear Ben:

acknowledging mistakes ain't easy- but is it not the norm of real science.

A friend to science.


I recall a similar story in which Peter Drucker had published an article in HBR around 1990 about the nursing crisis in America and his view of its solutions. One of the published responses was a scathing attack on him and his ideas. Rather than defending his turf and his reputation, Drucker rather humbly thanked the respondent and stated, "I'm learning..."
I was so impressed with Drucker and his willingness to learn rather than launch a counter-attack in defense of himself and his ego. I think it is a reflection of personal and professional dignity and self-confidence.

Expat in China

My wife has a friend who married a rich guy (rich enough to flout the one-child policy) here in southern China. They had a girl and now she is pregnant again. They will be heading into Hong Kong this week for a check-up at a ob-gyn. If it's a girl, they'll abort.

My Chinese wife happens to be pregnant with our second child right now and the neighborhood management office is calling her up and giver her grief saying she can't have a second baby. Apparently the fact that the baby won't be a Chinese citizen is no matter to them.


This world need the real right people to do the right thing
with the right will to save our home (earth) we need those who can do not those who want for our leaking world.


Wow, people are generous to Emily Oster. First, she publishes a paper that is not without problems (as most empirical papers are). Then she goes on a world tour to promote her results beyond what is reasonable given those problems. When people who have been working on the issue for a long time point out some contradictory evidence, she flatly refuses to accept any of it. Finally somebody else finds that her analysis is wrong, and Emily is a hero.

Repeat with HIV.

Yes, I am jealous.


I think that a person can admit that he/she had done something wrong is good. For we can know what's the truth, and she can learn from it.