Emily Oster on How Data Can Soothe Parental Anxiety
EMily Oster doesn’t offer any parenting advice. This is something she insists on. Oster is an economist at Brown University who studies health data. She prefers to use numbers to aid parents in making decisions. “When there isn’t any data, you can approach this in whatever way you want, including finding a parenting coach to counsel you on what to do,” she says. “But I’m not that parenting coach.”
She is, except sometimes. A leading voice in the debate on reopening schools during the pandemic, Oster has lately veered into more conventional “mommy blogger” content. She bristles at that characterization, and it’s true she doesn’t show off puzzlingly clean kids’ rooms or promote baby gear with discount links. And she hasn’t left behind the data-driven approach to parenting laid out in her best-selling books You can expect better Cribsheet, The Family Firm.She does appear to try to balance both.
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This spring, her newsletter, ParentData—which she launched just before the pandemic—added a “wins and woes” section that celebrates readers whose kids slept through the night and commiserates with those who lost the battle over screen time. Each week, she receives questions from over 150,000 Instagram users on everything from vaccine (for the which she has data) and motion sickness (for whom she is unable to). For the last, she recommends keeping one of 7-Eleven’s Big Gulp Cups in her car. This will make it less messy. This is technical advice, I remind you.
“That’s totally right,” she says, laughing. “I definitely mix data about this thing and thoughts from a fellow parent. What I try not to do is say, Here is expertise on child-car-sick-vomiting. I realize it’s a subtle, subtle distinction.”
This isn’t a pivot, she says, but it is a deliberate strategy. She wants to broaden her readership and teach a wider audience data literacy—how to tell a good study from a bad one—with relatable anecdotes on parenting, “like the veggies you sneak into your kid’s food,” she says. And she’s good at it: her answers, often filmed during her 6 a.m. run, are short and usually comforting.
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But Oster, who was one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2022, doesn’t deny that the past two-plus years have been trying. Oster spent many months collecting data about COVID-19 among schools. She wrote about it in national news outlets. Her research showed that in-person education has more benefits than its risks. Many parents saw her work as a lifesaver in times of uncertainty. Other parents told her to keep going and claimed she was putting her children in danger. She defends her work and cites her research on inequality perpetuated by closures.
“I felt bad about being yelled at. But I don’t regret it. If the result was more kids got access to in-person school at the cost of some people yelling at me on Twitter, that’s OK.”
Now, she and another Brown professor plan to hold a class about lessons from the pandemic. With a deep sigh she shares this, anticipating the Twitter response. “I’m quite excited about the class,” she says. “But I am sure there will be the regular kind of pushback that I get when doing anything with COVID.”
Oster has always eaten sat.It is not easy to transition between jobs. When she was a University of Chicago professor, she got pregnant and had the typical questions—Could she drink coffee? What prenatal test should she take? How high were they? Without explanation, doctors offered restrictions to her. Oster is a statistician and has a background in public health. She examined all the studies to determine if they were out of date, flawed, or based on small samples. The result was a book that aimed at empowering pregnant women to take their own decisions.
Oster believes that those who attempted to decentralize data analysis have won her few admirers in academia. It is possible that she was not granted tenure by the University of Chicago because she worked on a book that was meant for non-academics, rather than writing papers that were likely to be read only in academic circles. Still, as Oster’s kids got older—they’re now 7 and 11—she kept researching childrearing queries and pursuing commercial writing. She had her books passed down from mother to daughter and they reached the top of the bestsellers list. One type of highly educated mother now quotes Oster like the Gospel.
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She reached new heights in the pandemic. The U.S. government produced limited data on COVID-19’s effects in schools, so Oster led a team that began collecting publicly accessible data on schools in 42 states across the country. “I think it is possible to say, ‘A decision needs to be made now, and what are the pieces of information that are feasible to get?’” she says. “I worked hard to be transparent about the limitations of the data we collected on COVID in schools. I thought it was substantially better than any of the information that was out there while acknowledging that it was not perfect.”
After she faced criticism that her funding, in part, came from organizations that support charter schools or oppose unions, Oster responded in her newsletter: “Our sources of funding have no influence. The whole thing. The funding for this project has run through Brown, which has strict rules that would not allow funders to influence research findings.” Her conclusions have since been bolstered by research conducted by the CDC, the European Union, and other academics. Parents who have been warned about COVID are more harsh in their emotional criticisms. “I don’t think of myself as someone who is unsympathetic to the fact that people are very afraid,” she says. “But I still think that having information is a way to move through some of that anxiety.”
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It is this belief—that data can be soothing—that continues to set Oster apart, even as she dabbles in wins and woes. It’s what attracts readers who want information and discomfits them when they aren’t sure what to do with it. Oster found that many parents, regardless of her best efforts to protect their children’s interests, still need definitive answers. This is an In We Expect Better she concludes, “Don’t worry too much about sushi,” with the caveat that lower-quality sushi “might carry bacteria,” yet a friend recently texted me the following about her pregnancy diet: “You can eat sushi while pregnant. Emily Oster says so.”
In a bid to make nuance more acceptable, Oster harbors larger ambitions in the zone of data literacy: “I would like to see us teach everybody in high school how to read and interpret data.” She has spoken with organizations about ideas for better education on the subject. But she’s reluctant to predict what she’ll be doing in a few years. Given that her books have followed her children’s stages of life, I ask if she might one day graduate out of this space. She smiles. “There’s always menopause.”
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