The Missing Women of Asia

9 May

According to China’s fifth national census, conducted in 2000, there were around 117 men for every 100 women. The sex ratios in much of Europe and the US are quite the reverse, with there being around 105 females for every 100 males. Amartya Sen in an essay for NYRB argued that the reason behind the discrepancy was misogyny. Emily Oster, who was a Harvard graduate student at the time, published an article in 2005 arguing that “perhaps as much as 45 percent of the gender imbalance observed in the Sen (1992) missing women populations in the period 1980–90 can be accounted for by hepatitis B.” Oster further argued, “that the explanatory power varies significantly across space: 75 percent of the missing women in China are accounted for, versus around 20 percent in India.” Oster’s article received a lot of attention on its release. Luminaries like Steven D. Levitt used Oster’s research to take a jab at Amartya Sen. The paper was seen as a signpost of how sometimes prejudicial seemingly convenient explanations can be completely off the mark. The article also produced a fair amount of backlash with Monica Das Gupta, a senior researcher at the World Bank who had prior produced scathing articles documenting female infanticide in Punjab, arguing that Dr. Oster’s methodology was flawed. Das Gupta’s critique didn’t go unrequited and soon the argument had turned into a narrow academic debate. Just recently Das Gupta has renewed her assault with an article that uses some innovative statistics to dig a hole in Oster’s hypothesis. “Das Gupta found that data from a huge sample of births in China show that the only women with elevated probabilities of bearing a son are those who have already borne daughters.” World Bank

The argument Gupta offers is persuasive, and there is little doubt in my mind that Gupta is right.

Further Reading –

May 22, 2008

Oster admits that she was wrong

Andy Gelman on Monica Das Gupta being right all along