Nate Meyvis

Reading notes: Emily Oster

Reactions to various of Prof. Oster's recent newsletters:

  • Here she argues that we need to do more thinking about, and be more accepting of, second-best outcomes. This seems obviously right, and parenting discourse is a locus of "anything that's not the best is unacceptable" thinking. I think there's another essential point here, though: advice about what's best is usually domain-relative. Your lawyer gives you legal advice: what's best from that perspective might not be best for your life overall. Similarly for everyone else giving advice. This comes up even within domains: what's best for your knee injury might not be best for your cardiovascular health. The reason we can't get the best outcome isn't so much because we're fallible (though we certainly are!), but because that best outcome is also a not-best outcome when viewed from other perspectives. The hard part is accessing and evaluating from the all-things-considered perspective. Almost nobody is incentivized to help you with that. Good luck.

  • Here Oster gives us her take on econometrics. This is one of my favorite Oster posts ever, in part because it reminds us that there's no getting away from epistemology, even when formal methods can make us think that certain kinds of judgment are no longer necessary.

  • Here is a discussion of smartphones and mental health. The first-order point here is that everything Oster says about the paper itself seems to be correct and useful, and I'm glad she has her eye on it. The meta-level / "how to read Emily Oster" point is that the related article she praises as "excellent" seems to exhibit some of the epistemic problems that The Zvi lays out here. (The Zvi is indeed excellent on this and many other subjects, FWIW.) In general, if you read media that Emily Oster recommends because you think it will be excellent in the same way Oster's work is excellent, you will often be disappointed.

Published 2023-06-17.