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Do Economists Have Frequent Sex?

November 20, 2012 • Family Planning, Reproductive Health, Daily Email Recap

Below is an essay by Martha Campbell and Malcolm Potts, which was published on the Pop!ulation Press website on November 12th, 2012. In it, Campbell and Potts take to task the pacific, and apparently routinely unexamined, reliance on the demographic transition theory by far too many in far too many disciplines.

Campbell and Potts state near their conclusion that, “As more and more exceptions to the demographic transition theory have been documented, some demographers and economists have been left looking like pre-Copernican astronomers inventing increasingly improbable explanations of a flawed geocentric system rather than accepting the fact that the earth goes round the sun.

Do Economists Have Frequent Sex? by Martha Campbell and Malcolm Potts  
See: http://populationpress.org/2012/11/12/do-economists-have-frequent-sex-by-martha-campbell-and-malcolm-potts/

Last year a World Bank economist gave a lecture on development in Africa on the UC Berkeley campus. His audience asked him about rapid population growth in that continent. He immediately dismissed the question, saying that population growth did not need any special attention. It would look after itself. He was voicing an uncritical interpretation of the demographic transition, a “theory” which has as much evidence to support it as the fictitious Da Vinci Code, although like the Da Vinci Code it remains perennially popular.

In the mid-twentieth century, writers such as Frank Notestein and Kingsley Davis described how western societies had begun with high birth and death rates, that death rates fell before birthrates leading to a growth in population until a new equilibrium was reached where low death rates were matched by low birth rates.  This classic description of the demographic transition is in textbooks and on UTube. As a set of general empirical observations it has some usefulness.  However, when empirical observations are elevated to become a “model,” or a  “theory” seemingly capable of providing an “explanation” of demographic change, then we have a serious problem. The explanation can become grievously misleading.  When the demographic transition theory is used to predict future population growth, then it becomes downright dangerous.

The theory has proved unusually persistent and remarkably impervious to criticism. Economists have mistakenly bought into the concept that when societies become richer and better educated-often referred to as socio-economic conditions-then fertility (the average number of children per woman) will decline.  Careful studies of the theory in Europe have found only a weak relationship between socio-economic conditions and fertility decline. Reviewing the success of organized family planning programs in Asia and Latin America, researchers Bongaarts and Watkins concluded, “there is no tight link between development indicators and fertility,” yet they still felt compelled to assert “the role of socio-economic development in accounting for fertility declines remains inherently plausible.”

It is almost as if the demographic transition model has some divine power that must never be questioned. A panel of the US National Academy of Science in 2000 concluded “fertility in countries that have not completed transition should eventually reach levels similar to those now observed in low fertility countries.” Editing a volume called The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century, Wolfgang Lutzwrites, “the well-founded, general notion of demographic transition is the basis of our expectation that world population growth will come to an end during the second half of the 21st century.” Tim Dyson, in a 2010 book Population and Development: The Demographic Transition, sees demographic transition playing a “central role in the creation of the modern world,” asserting that demographic transition is “self-contained and inexorable over the long run.”

But is this expectation well founded, and are the empirical processes actually “self-contained and inexorable”?  Recognizing a serious problem in this thinking, Simon Szreter has commented, “the [demographic] model’s conceptual structure was allowed to become so general and the theoretical relation so flexible that, as a causal explanation of change, it became an empirically irrefutable theory.”

To read the full article, please click here: http://populationpress.org/2012/11/12/do-economists-have-frequent-sex-by-martha-campbell-and-malcolm-potts/


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