Missing Women Found

In two recent posts I referenced the use of life expectancy statistics by economist Amartya Sen to highlight social inequality. So I feel compelled to report on a new paper which is critical of another set of data used by Sen: the gender gap in birth rates.

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, have an article in Slate on Emily Oster’s work (PDF) which establishes a link between hepatitis B and birth gender.

This is an important link because it goes a long way towards explaining the 100 million “missing women” Amartya Sen had noticed when examining statistics on childbirth in Asia. In fact, it seems to account for about half of them; although primarily in China, not India. Basically, pregnant women with hepatitis B are much less likely to give birth to boys than the general population. Hepatitis B can account for “roughly 75 percent of the missing women in China,” but “less than 20 percent of the boy-girl gap” in India.

The article is also worth reading for a nice coda regarding Emily Oster’s contribution to the study of child language acquisition.

5 thoughts on “Missing Women Found

  1. Hi,

    I came across the same article, but what I immediately wondered was why Amartya Sen’s work in particular was singled-out for re-study; why Sen’s sociocultural /political economic explanation was challenged by a biological/epidemiological one; and what to make of the fact that the student presenting the work is in some way associated with Dubner and Levitt. In short, I felt awfully wary about swallering it whole.

    Along these lines, see Patricia Williams’ commentary in the more recent issue of the Nation on another Dubner student’s report on the “genetic” link between slavery, salt retention, and hypertension among African-Americans.

    A certain pattern begins to emerge.

    kudos on the new group blog.


  2. Sorrry — me again. It seems significant that Dubner and Levitt have promoted the work of a *female* student that undermines gender discrimination as a key basis for a real-world outcome (“missing” women) while also promoting the work of a *black* student that undermines racial discrimination as a key basis for a real world outcome (high rates of hypertension among African-Americans). More patterns, is all I’m sayin.

  3. Rather than condemning Emily Oster as a right-wing nut, you might go and read http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~eoster/witchec.pdf, a Durkheimian-materialist exploration of European Medieval witch-burnings as “a large-scale example of violence and scapegoating prompted by a deterioration in economic conditions. In this case, the downturn was brought on by a decrease in temperature and resulting food shortages. The most active period of the witchcraft trials coincides with a period of lower than average temperature known to climatologists as the “little ice age.” The colder temperatures increased the frequency of crop failure and colder seas prevented cod and other fish from migrating as far north…. Several kinds of data show more than a coincidental relationship between witch trials, weather and economic growth. In a time period when the reasons for changes in weather were largely a mystery, people would have searched for a scapegoat in the face of deadly changes in weather patterns. ‘Witches’ became target for blame because there was an existing cultural framework that both allowed their persecution and suggested that they could control the weather…”

  4. Funny that this post should come up again today. I just happened to glance at the BBC News and saw this article. Like I said above, the Hep-B study was primarily on China, while the BBC news article is about India, but still interesting nonetheless.

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