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Autism research stirs debate

"Is an Economist Qualified to Solve Puzzle of Autism?" That's the question asked in the title of a front-page Wall Street Journal "Mind and Matter" article by Mark Whitehouse (Feb. 27, 2007). The paper that spurred the debate – "Does Television Cause Autism?" – was presented in October 2006 at the National Bureau of Economic Research conference in Cambridge, Mass., by Michael Waldman, Charles H. Dyson Professor of Management and professor of economics, Sean Nicholson, Associate Professor, Cornell University College of Human Ecology, and Nodir Adilov of Indiana University-Purdue University.

Waldman and his colleagues' paper received wide attention in the media, appearing in Time magazine, on CBS News, and on ABC's "Good Morning America." The Wall Street Journal
Michael Waldman
Michael Waldman
article raises the question of whether economists such as Waldman have the academic jurisdiction to do research and proclaim findings so far afield from their discipline. As Whitehouse put it, "Academic economists are increasingly venturing beyond their traditional stomping ground, a wanderlust that has produced some powerful results but also has raised concerns about whether they're sometimes going too far."

Waldman likes solving puzzles, and one such puzzle in his own family impelled him to investigate whether there could be a connection between autism and television viewing. He believes that restricting television viewing may have helped his own son after the boy was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

No large sets of data track whether young children who watch a lot of television are more likely to develop autism, so Waldman examined the connection between autism and two factors that generally increase the amount of television young children watch: precipitation, and access to cable television. The authors reviewed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey on television viewing rates among children, and compared it with data from the National Climactic Data Center on the amount of precipitation communities receive.
Child watching television
According to this analysis, children in counties with higher precipitation rates watch more television. Counties with higher rates of precipitation also have a higher percentage of autistic children. Both characteristics are present in counties with higher cable television subscription rates.

"We tested our hypothesis using existing, well-known data," says Waldman. "The analysis shows that early childhood television viewing could be an environmental trigger for the onset of autism, and strongly points to the need for more research by experts in the field of autism."

Economists have studied the cost of war, the effect on crime of adding police, school performance, and now autism. In each of these cases, the researcher uses an instrumental variable to help determine cause and effect. Perhaps the economists best known for pushing the field into uncharted territory are Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, authors of the bestselling book Freakonomics.

When challenged by interviewer Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America," who noted that all sorts of false correlations are stumbled on all the time, and suggested that children with autism may be drawn to the TV, Waldman responded: "We're not saying we have definite evidence; we're saying there's enough suggestive evidence that this needs to be looked at. One in 150 kids is currently diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. We need to look under every stone that's plausible. No one's been looking under this stone."

Jason Hogg's GratisCard gains traction

GratisCard, a company founded by Jason Hogg, MBA '02, is about to make an impact on the credit card industry. Backed by the Internet-savvy America Online co-founder Steve Case, GratisCard officially launched in April 2007 and appeared in both the Wall Street Journal – "How a Fledgling Credit Card Cuts Fees" (3/14/07) – and Business Week, – "Steve Case Takes on the Credit Card Giants" (3/13/07).

Gratis Card logo
GratisCard, a prime example of disruptive technology, offers consumers the first all-in-one card functionality with prepaid, credit, as well as online and mobile peer-to-peer functionality. Most importantly, the GratisCard is the first anonymous card that requires a PIN, ultimately providing consumers the most secure and innovative credit and prepaid product in the marketplace.

GratisCard is a response to the high cost and inflexible platforms of today's prepaid and credit-card platforms. For merchants, GratisCard's proprietary, Internet-based technology eliminates interchange fees. Merchants can redirect a portion of their savings from interchange fees to offering customers compelling incentives and loyalty programs, thereby building deeper relationships with them.

A founder of MBNA Canada, where he served as chief business development officer, Hogg had formerly held executive positions in loss prevention, credit, compliance, and sales and marketing at MBNA America. He also co-founded both MBNA's Sports Marketing practice and its credit counseling subsidiary, Financial Management Services, Inc. Hogg started GratisCard in 2005, drawing on his experience in running venture capital-backed businesses HorizonLive, Inc. and Medsite, Inc. He attributes his entrepreneurial success to the experiences and insights he gained at the Johnson School.

Is hiring a woman risky business?

Susan Cabrera and Melissa Thomas-Hunt on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now"
Susan Cabrera and Melissa Thomas-Hunt on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now"
Women are held to higher standards and must prove their competence above and beyond their male counterparts in the corporate world, according to the findings of a new study by Melissa Thomas-Hunt, assistant professor of management and organizations, and Susan Cabrera, a PhD student at the Johnson School. The study, "Risky Business," was covered on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" and on CNN International in February.

Thomas-Hunt and Cabrera's research seeks to explain why so few women attain leadership positions in many fields, and explores the gender biases that affect

hiring and promotion decisions. Hunt's and Cabrera's theoretical model comprehensively identifies pervasive gender stereotypes, biases, and perceptions that contribute to the struggle of women to be hired for and promoted to senior-level positions. They argue, for example, that in hiring decisions, women are held to a higher standard for proving their competence: The same level of competence that proves ability for a man may not prove ability for a woman. Moreover, a woman's success is more likely to be attributed to unstable or external factors, such as luck and ease of task.

Cayuga Fund lauded for stellar performance in 2006

"Cornell's Student-Run Hedge Fund Beats Pros" proclaimed the headline for a story about the 2006 performance of the Cayuga Fund in online magazine FundFire (2/14/07). The Cayuga Fund, a $13.6 million market-neutral hedge fund operated by student fund managers with supervision and oversight by faculty and investment professionals, posted a 14.2 percent return in 2006. The fund started in 1998 with $600,000 in donations from alumni.

Students and Staff in the Parker Center for Investment Research
The FundFire article goes on to discuss the performance-learning approach of the Cayuga Fund, which – unlike other schools' student-run funds – deals with real investor money instead of university endowment funds, and allows both long and short investment positions.

The Cayuga Fund is just one teaching tool available at the Johnson School's Parker Center for Investment Management, where all MBA students have access to the Robert S. Boas Trading Room, a virtual trading room and classroom with real-time stock quotes, international data feeds, and financial analysis software and data valued at more than $1.8 million per year in licensing fees.

– Deirdre Snyder