Correlation, causation, and breastfeeding

An interesting piece in the Atlantic on breastfeeding. Here’s a snippet:

One day, while nursing my baby in my pediatrician’s office, I noticed a 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association open to an article about breast-feeding: “Conclusions: There are inconsistent associations among breastfeeding, its duration, and the risk of being overweight in young children.” Inconsistent? There I was, sitting half-naked in public for the tenth time that day, the hundredth time that month, the millionth time in my life—and the associations were inconsistent? The seed was planted. That night, I did what any sleep-deprived, slightly paranoid mother of a newborn would do. I called my doctor friend for her password to an online medical library, and then sat up and read dozens of studies examining breast-feeding’s association with allergies, obesity, leukemia, mother-infant bonding, intelligence, and all the Dr. Sears highlights.

After a couple of hours, the basic pattern became obvious: the medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that Sears describes. More like tiny, unsure baby steps: two forward, two back, with much meandering and bumping into walls. A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes. Even where consensus is mounting, the meta studies—reviews of existing studies—consistently complain about biases, missing evidence, and other major flaws in study design. “The studies do not demonstrate a universal phenomenon, in which one method is superior to another in all instances,” concluded one of the first, and still one of the broadest, meta studies, in a 1984 issue of Pediatrics, “and they do not support making a mother feel that she is doing psychological harm to her child if she is unable or unwilling to breastfeed.” Twenty-five years later, the picture hasn’t changed all that much.

And here’s a snippet of econ-evidence, reaching a similar conclusion.

(Cross-posted from andrewleigh.com)

Baptism Bonus

Joshua Gans and I have previously shown that financial incentives can affect birth timing. Now some evidence that non-monetary incentives matter too. From the BBC:

At the end of 2007, in a move to reverse the Caucasian country’s dwindling birth figures, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, came up with an incentive. He promised to personally baptise any baby born to parents of more than two children.

There was only one catch: the baby had to be born after the initiative was launched.

The results are, in the words of the Georgian Orthodox Church, "a miracle". … The country’s birth rate increased by nearly 20% during 2008 – a rate four times faster than the previous year.

‘Personally baptise’ all those babies? Wow, that sounds like a full time job. Unless…

The next baptism is scheduled for early April, when thousands of mums, dads and their children will cram into Tbilisi’s biggest church, the Sameba Cathedral. The babies will be briefly dipped into a gigantic inflatable font after receiving a blessing from his Holiness, Ilia II.

HT: Rocco Weglarz (font of all wisdom this week)

What makes a good CEO?

My AFR oped today looks at some new research on what makes a good business leader. Full text over the fold.

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When Good Leaders Hit Bad Times

In early-1993, Australian unemployment peaked at nearly 12%. In 1992-1995, six of Australia’s eight states and territories ousted their government. By contrast, unemployment averaged 5% in 2003-2006. In these years, no state or territory government was ousted from power.

In Australian politics, conventional wisdom has it that the state government oustings of the early-1990s were due to bad leadership, while the victories of the early-2000s were due to skill. But could it be that Carr wasn’t more skillful than Cain & Kirner, just luckier? In a paper that we released last year, Mark McLeish and I showed that Australian state governments were more likely to lose office when the national economy turned sour.*

To check that our results weren’t being driven merely by the modest contribution that state leaders make to economic performance, we were able to show that our results held up even if we only used a purely unrelated source of growth – the US economy. Here’s a chart that shows our central result: the bars indicate the share of state governments losing office in each 5-year period, while the line is the US unemployment rate.

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An Evidence Hierarchy for Social Policymakers

The Economic Roundup, Treasury’s in-house journal, has just released its first issue for 2009. Evidence is a bit of a theme for the issue, and among the articles, I have one that discusses the idea of a medical-style ‘evidence hierarchy’ for social policymakers.* As one possible evidence hierarchy, I’ve suggested that the following might be used:

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Oportunidades Knocks?

Can paying children for attendance and grades boost scores, or will it do more harm than good? In development economics, one of the most popular programs over recent years are conditional cash transfer programs. Modelled on a randomised trial of the Mexican Progresa program (now Oportunidades), a succession of developing nations have put in place programs that pay parents a cash transfer if their children attend school. My read of the development evidence is that there is a strong consensus that conditional cash transfer programs are an efficient way of raising educational attainment (much more effective than, say, simply banning child labour).But in more affluent countries, conditional cash transfer programs are much more controversial, despite the fact that, according to a piece in the New York Times, they are proliferating across US cities:

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