why sociology is a bit more threatening than economics: the case of fetal alcohol syndrome

Consider the following approaches to the same in issue – fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). In 2000, Elizabeth Armstrong and Ernest Abel published an article in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism arguing that fetal alcohol syndrome had become a moral panic.  Even though people had become obsessed with FAS, there was actually very little evidence to suggest that moderate alcohol consumption damaged fetuses. This argument is elaborated in the 2008 book Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility. In 2013, the economist Emily Oster published a book called Expecting Better, which assesses pregnancy advice with a review of the pertinent clinical evidence. Like Armstrong, Oster finds that the norm against moderate alcohol consumption is  not supported by the data.

The comparison between Oster and Armstrong is revealing. For example, more people know about Expecting Better because, frankly, economists are more respected than sociologists. But there is a deeper lesson. When Oster frames her work, she presents it as a morally neutral project. Her framing is roughly: “Statistics is hard, people may not have all the facts, and you might have a mistaken belief, but as an economist,  I am trained in statistics. I can help you make a better choice.” Thus, the reader is morally blameless.

In contrast, Armstrong’s approach to FAS relies on standard explanations of moral panics in sociology. It goes something like this: “The facts we believe reflect our underlying biases. These biases reflect our evaluations of certain types of people, who may not deserve that stigma.” Thus, if the reader buys FAS, they are implicated in an immoral action – unfairly exercising gender prejudice. Heck, all of society is implicated.

This is an interesting observation about the public image of disciplines. Economists may advocate unpopular policies (e.g., they are often critical of minimum wage laws) but their moral framework is fairly neutral and technocratic. If you don’t buy my policy, it’s probably because you aren’t aware of all the factors involved. You haven’t calculate the social welfare function properly! In contrast, sociologists often make arguments that implicate the moral character of the audience. And that doesn’t buy you a lot of friends.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

9 Responses

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  1. spot on!



    June 11, 2014 at 2:34 pm

  2. There is also a difference in that Oster presents the book as an advice book, albeit one with lots of statistics. It reflects advice on what an individual mother should do.

    To be fair, Oster’s book also takes on much more than fetal alcohol syndrome, which I think is also part of its success. The list of items that pregnant women are not supposed to eat, touch, smell, or look at is absurdly long. Oster points out and takes on this absurdity.



    June 11, 2014 at 5:33 pm

  3. mike3550: The advice framing is important, but it is one that is consistent with the general moral framing of modern economics. Also, Armstrong’s book/article is very careful as well. It is very scholarly.



    June 11, 2014 at 5:35 pm

  4. I agree that (some) economics can appeal because it seems technocratic and neutral, but not sure Oster’s book is the best example of this. Look at the Amazon reviews: 158 5-star, 99 1-star (and only 36 in between!). The 1* reviewers find her data-based argument -very- threatening. It may leave the reader morally blameless, but if it conflicts with readers’ strongly held beliefs, that can prompt just as negative a reaction.



    June 11, 2014 at 10:24 pm

  5. umm… while railing against FAS (which has no real supportive evidence) people ignore miscarriage as an outcome. If you read studies claiming evidence against FAS, almost all have survivor bias — contingent on not miscarrying, i.e. carrying baby to term, drinking alcohol doesnt have any long term effects on kids development. The few studies that actually find evidence, are on miscarriage rates as outcomes, not long term developmental outcomes. I haven’t read the soc/econ books, but if you peruse the literature there is a not insignificant amount of evidence correlating alcohol consumption and miscarriage rates. That might well be a matter of underlying differences in lifestyle, but the evidence is hardly convincing in the other direction either. So yes, FAS believers might be manic/irrational/pick-your-jargon, but that’s hardly reason to recommend pregnant mothers to hit the bottle.



    June 13, 2014 at 12:22 am

  6. Oster’s book, as mike pointed out, is advice-based. It’s also written in an incredibly conversational tone, like you’re sitting down to chat with a friend about all the crazy pregnancy restrictions on diet, exercise, and everything else. She says she essentially wrote this book because after doing the research during her own pregnancy, all her friends asked her for recommendations. So, if you buy her authority as someone who can read medical literature (although, as the Amazon comments show – not everyone does), then it’s pretty easy to read, digest, and talk about with other people. And clearly her reading of the research is pretty convincing for those of us who understand how medical research works (lack of power, poor reference groups, arbitrary cut-off points between some/a lot). But it’s also a book you could recommend to non-scientists because of the writing style. If Armstrong’s book is scholarly work, then it’s not being read by pregnant women who are trying to just figure out what is “acceptable” and what is not. Different audience, and hence, a different public image.



    June 16, 2014 at 2:19 pm

  7. An economist’s moral framework is NOT AT ALL NEUTRAL. All of the underlying assumptions necessary to make any economic theory are utterly laden with underlying beliefs about morality and ethics. Those assumptions must be uncovered and discussed openly. Were it not for underlying moral differences, we would not have different schools of thought in economics. They are outgrowths of the varying moral philosophies contained in the underlying assumptions.


    Yvonne Jacobs

    June 17, 2014 at 12:20 pm

  8. Thank you, Yvonne. Technocracy IS a position reflecting a very specific moral outlook. The illusion of economics’ neutrality is the greatest scam the field ever pulled.


    Adam Smithee

    June 17, 2014 at 4:01 pm

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