18.5.16

DOODLING ELEGANCE AND DIDDLING RIGOR

There's a long-running debate among economists about the roles of rigor and relevance.  Is High Practice the construction of intellectually airtight arguments, whether using the higher mathematics or not?  Is it the provision of an Operator's Manual for Wise Experts to Organize A Good Society?  Is it demonstrating cleverness by arguing that what appears odd actually makes sense?

Some years ago, Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics attempted to demonstrate cleverness with a particularly provocative set of odd situations.  That provoked a columnist called Noam Scheiber to ask, Is Freakonomics Ruining Economics? That column has long gone down the memory hole, but reactions by James Joyner and Alex Tabarrok remain on line.  Short answer: there's division of labor.  People competent at identifying trembling-hand refinements do that.  People who can write their own estimators or build their own data sets do that.  People who can put an intriguing twist on a pass through a panel study do that.  People who solve partial-equilibrium imponderables do that.

Mr. Joyner:
While it’s likely true that a tenure and promotion system that incentivizes doing studies that can be done quickly will divert some attention that might have gone to those which can not, there are, almost by definition, plenty of people interested in the “important” and “policy relevant” questions. Presumably, if academic economists aren’t doing them, think tanks and private foundations will.
Mr. Tabarrok:
The truth is that even today most of economics is a wasteland of boring papers on profoundly uninteresting questions.  The choice is not Levitt v. Heckman it’s Levitt and Heckman (and many others like Buchanan who neither Levitt nor Heckman might appreciate) versus a huge number of non-entities (many highly paid and famous) who answer trivial questions poorly and do it without even the courtesy of offering some entertainment on the side.
The reference to "Levitt v. Heckman" refers to a public spat in the economics department at The University of Chicago over whether entertaining partial equilibrium problems were worthy of study.  That might be what prompted Mr Scheiber to bring up the "ruining economics" question.

Bet on emergence.

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