natural experiment

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A term applied to John Snow's study of the cholera epidemic in south London in 1854, in which he made use of information about the differing sources of private water supplies to many households, in some of which cholera had occurred and in others of which it had not. The concept of a “natural experiment,” in which a real-life situation is observed and studied systematically, has been applied to many other conditions. Examples include observations of child growth and development before, during, and after a period of wartime food rationing, which showed that the balanced diet of British food rations was nutritionally superior to prewar diets; reduced lung cancer mortality rates among former smokers who quit; reduced traffic crash mortality when speed limits were lowered and enforced during a fuel crisis in the 1970s; and increased head injury mortality when some states relaxed requirements for motorcyclists to wear safety helmets.

Subjects: Public Health and Epidemiology — Economics.

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