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Friday, May 27, 2005

Academic Imperialism

Perhaps you thought the age of imperialism is dead. The idea that one people, who consider themselves superior, could simply take over the territory of the inferior people – and this is perfectly justifiable by might makes right – belongs to an earlier, more barbaric, age. Not so. Imperialism is alive and well in academia. And economists are probably the biggest academic imperialists.

Economists have already laid waste to the entire subject area of sociology. If there ever really was a serious subject area of criminology, economists have plundered that as well. Politcal science is now economists’ social choice theory. And now economics is eyeing epidemiology. And maybe they want to take over the field of statistics as well.

There is an interesting article about a Harvard economics graduate student named Emily Oster in Slate, (via Marginal Revolution). The Slate article was written by the Freakonomics pair: Dubner and Levitt, (probably just by Stephen Dubner). The beginning of the article is interesting:

What is economics, anyway? It's not so much a subject matter as a sort of tool kit—one that, when set loose on a thicket of information, can determine the effect of any given factor. "The economy" is the thicket that concerns jobs and real estate and banking and investment. But the economist's tool kit can just as easily be put to more creative use.

Translation: what you are about to read is not what you would ordinarily consider to be economics, but because it was produced using economists’ superior techniques, it’s really good science. That paragraph screams: “Imperialism alert.”

The article explains the Emily Oster wanted to explain a mystery: why were so many women “missing” in Asia. There are more men than women. Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen accused the Asian societies of killing these girls off by either neglect or selective abortion or even infanticide. This is a very weighty charge.

Emily Oster had another idea. Maybe these girls died because of an epidemic of Hepatitis B. The curious property of this disease, she discovered, was that it tended to kill off female fetuses more than male fetuses. By looking at the prevalence of Hepatitis B vaccine in an area, she was able to explain about half of these missing women.

Now I would not deny that this is good research. But is this economics? The first paragraph of Dubner’s article suggests that it is economics because it uses economic tools (econometrics). But statisticians and epidemiologists would call those same tools regression analysis. Economists didn’t invent regression analysis; we only improved it in areas that cover economics because the models become more complex when people make choices. But this is the point: people are not making choices in Oster’s model.

If I were a poohbah in the AMA, I would be raising a ruckus that economists are passing epidemiology (which is the study of diseases – medicine’s turf) off as economics. I would say, “If you want to call Emily Oster a good epidemiologist, fine, and she can submit her paper to the JAMA. But don’t call this economics. This is our turf, stay off!”

Well, maybe I’d be a little less blunt, and a bit more diplomatic, but you get the idea.

10 Comments:

  • Michael, just one question. Who the hell cares whether you call it economics or not? It's good research and that's all that matters. As far as economics laying waste to fields like sociology or criminology - well, maybe if those folks did a better job in the first place the conquerin' would've not been so easy.

    Oh yeah - and Oster's research IS about choice - the original hypothesis was more or less that parents in some countries CHOOSE to let girls die etc. If you do regression you gotta control for other variable. That's what she did.

    You're getting your panties on in a twist over nothin'

    By Blogger radek, at 1:23 PM  

  • Hi Radek
    The issue is more about not stepping on other's turf. Oster's research has strong relationship to economics because of Sen's claim and because epidemiology is always of interest to health economists. But her research could have been performed by the standard statistics software (SAS) and did require any specific econometric tools. In that sense it should be published in the Medical literature and not the economics literature.

    I'm an economist and I wouldn't argue that any econometrician could do epidemiology better than the average epidemiologist. It's just running regressions. But that's like saying any engineer could do the work of a draftsman. But that's a step down.

    Actually I don't really argue with your point: "As far as economics laying waste to fields like sociology or criminology - well, maybe if those folks did a better job in the first place the conquerin' would've not been so easy."
    Economists are the kings of the social sciences, no doubt about that. But economists have to work with people in other fields. Public Health economists have to work with epidemiologists. Its hard to get cooperation if you are flagrantly poaching their territory.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:00 PM  

  • Michael -- I think it's reasonable to complain that this isn't
    economics, from the viewpoint of an economist. After all, we all
    have our own ideas about what the field should encompass. But I'm
    not sure that it's reasonable to claim that epidemiologists should
    feel threatened. The way economists think about the world is often
    pretty different than epidemiologists and one upshot of that is that
    the questions we're asking are quite different. It's worth noting
    that the original research pointing to the sex-ratio hepatitis B
    connection is from the mid 1970s, and no one in epidemiology
    connected it to the missing women until this work.

    Also -- in terms of working with the epidemiologists -- I have spent
    a huge amount of time interacting with people in related fields
    about this paper. I think that's incredibly important when working
    across fields. And they have, by and large, not seemed threatened
    at all. -Emily

    By Blogger Eecon, at 3:27 PM  

  • Hi Emily

    "It's worth noting
    that the original research pointing to the sex-ratio hepatitis B
    connection is from the mid 1970s, and no one in epidemiology
    connected it to the missing women until this work."

    That's an excellent point.

    If you say that epidemilogists are not threaten by the encroachment of economists then maybe they are inferior people and economists should lay waste to their field. I hadn't considered that.

    Btw, Emily, best of luck in your career. I'm sure you will do well.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 3:59 PM  

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