Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Economics: a new definition?

Is it fair to quote the definition of economics from the blurb for a book?  If so, consider this definition in the blurb for Emily Oster's new book:

When Oster was expecting her first child, she felt powerless to make the right decisions for her pregnancy. How doctors think and what patients need are two very different things. So Oster drew on her own experience and went in search of the real facts about pregnancy using an economist’s tools. Economics is not just a study of finance. It’s the science of determining value and making informed decisions. To make a good decision, you need to understand the information available to you and to know what it means to you as an individual.
So, when applied to a medical topic (like pregnancy) how does this differ from evidence based medicine?  Should I be calling myself an economist?

None of this mean that Emily shouldn't write this book. My own read on the alcohol and pregnancy angle is that the current advice does seem to be based on an excess of caution.  But it seems odd to argue that being an economist is the key piece here.  Jumping fields is fine and can often lead to amazing insights, but maybe we should call this shifting of fields what it is rather than expanding the definition of economics to make it less meaningful?


  1. This is painfully representative of the economist-as-super-researcher movement. More often than not these tools they are so pleased with are already familiar to most researchers. Worse yet, economists' approaches tend toward the reductionist and linear and those economists most inclined to jump fields are often the ones least aware of the need to adjust their methods.

  2. Agreed. I read that and asked just how this was different than any other field? What is it that economics teaches that can't be duplicated by epidemiologists or sociologists? Doesn't everybody in academia teach how to make informed decisions?

    It is a bad sign when people think that one school of thought is so strong relative to everybody else. They may be right, but then (at least in the long run) the other fields are likely to be looting and plundering them for ideas, anyway.

  3. But have you read the book yet? Maybe she approaches the problem differently from the approach of evidence based medicine.

    I don't know, I'm just asking.

  4. It is certainly possible that she brings a unique perspective. My main thought was how odd it is that she dismisses a field (evidence based medicine) that specializes in what she claims she is doing. Given her previous foray into public health was a bit of a fiasco, I would have expected a less strident entry into the field the next time around.