Chocolate and Gold Coins

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Academic Imperialism Part II

Yesterday I wrote this piece on Academic Imperialism. I asked Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution his opinion on this subject:

I'm sorry to bother you but I do not have trackback and I wanted to point you to a piece I wrote called Academic Imperialism.

It relates to your post on the Dubner Effect. I believe that if Emily Oster's research is considered economics, this indicates that economists are laying claim to the subject of epidemiology. There is obviously overlap between epidemiology and economics but this research crosses the line into an area I call academic imperialism.

Prof. Tabarrok kindly wrote back. He said:


(I’m paraphrasing).

I have to admit, he has a point.

Then Emily Oster commented on my post in the comment section:

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 a very good point.

Then she wrote:

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.

I wrote:

If you say that epidemilogists are not threatened 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.

I read over Emily Oster paper, which you can find here, and it is definitely quality research.

I have no doubt that econometricians can do epidemiology much better than epidemiologists could. Much of epidemiology is really health care economics. Epidemiologists are not sufficiently trained in econometrics to adequately estimate models in which the disease involves an element of human choice - e.g. the AIDS epidemic where risky behavior helps spread the virus.

Here’s the question: Should economists simply take over epidemiology simply because we can do it better? Is this like the free market where any firm can enter another market if they think the firms in that existing market have a poor technology?

The bottom line, I would rather have Emily Oster do an AIDS model than an epidemiologist.


  • I'm wondering why academic provincialism should be considered a virtue...

    In my own academic life (now in my past), I decided to go into applied math, because I wasn't restricted in the subject matter I could apply my math to. I worked on a population model for sea turtles, molecular forces model in buckytubes, the behavior of neurons in the visual cortex, information theory in relation to search engines, and markov models to evaluate speech quality (for those with speech impediments). Now I'm modeling variable annuities and lifecycle mutual funds.

    There's a place for the data miners/analysts/modelers and a place for the people who do the legwork to get the data in the first place. It could be that the epidemiologists are more interested in doing fieldwork and are happy to "outsource" the modeling and data analysis.

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