In my previous blog, we discussed the ongoing debate surrounding community water fluoridation. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend reading an article on Nature that discusses the difficulty researchers from various fields face in finding common ground. My PhD study is concerned with how economics can add to our understanding of many problems studied in science, such as immigration, health shocks, and water fluoridation. However, people outside the field of economics may wonder why economists are interested in these issues. For instance, isn’t fluoride in water a topic that more related to chemistry, toxicology, or ecology?
Although many people associate economics with economic growth, monetary policy, and wages, it is actually a broader field that encompasses various topics that are not solely related to money and GDP. At its core, economics studies how individuals, firms, and societies allocate scarce resources to meet their needs and desires. This definition covers a wide range of topics, including labor markets, international trade, health, education, the environment, and social welfare.
For example, economists can study the environment to understand how people make decisions regarding resource use, such as water or energy, and how these decisions impact the natural world. This research can provide insights into how to design policies that encourage sustainable resource use and protect natural ecosystems. What is the extra value that economics adds to other scientific subjects?
While subjects such as chemistry and medicine are crucial in understanding the fluoride in water, it can be challenging to establish causality between water fluoridation and long-term impacts on human health. The randomized controlled trials are the gold standard to establish causality in scientific research, but they can be difficult to conduct for ethical and practical reasons. For instance, it is impossible to compare multiple identical individuals, each exposed to different fluoride concentrations in drinking water, and observe them over a long period of time. Similarly, control trials typically only involve small sample sizes, and it is challenging to control all factors in both the treatment and comparison groups. Additionally, results of animal studies have limitations.
In contrast, economists can utilize large-scale microdata and econometric techniques to address these issues and employ quasi-experimental designs in their research. Quasi-experimental designs attempt to replicate the conditions of a randomized controlled trial while avoiding the ethical issues associated with randomizing individuals or communities to different treatment groups. For instance, such a research design could occur when a new policy or intervention occurs that discontinues adding fluoride in one geographic area but not in another. Economists can use various methods to overcome confounding factors and take advantage of microdata at the individual level to establish causal effects of drinking water with fluoride on long-term health and labor outcomes. Some research approaches used in economics, such as the difference-in-difference method and regression discontinuity design, are gaining popularity in fields beyond economics.
In summary, economics offers several advantages when studying topics with a focus on individuals. Its focus on social outcomes, interdisciplinary approach, use of quasi-experimental designs, and access to a wide range of data sources make it a valuable field in the science world. In my next blog, I will delve into the details of economic research by using the example of a Swedish study.