Published today at The Upshot: What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists? by Wren McDonald. I want to pick up on a couple of points raised since they really get at things I’ve written and obsessed about a lot over the years.
I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s premise that sociology—in particular ethnography—and other academic disciplines can bring just as much or more relevant knowledge and expertise to public policy debates as economics can. I’m going to get a bit depressing in a minute here so I don’t mean this to come across as a backhanded compliment or something. I do mean it seriously. My criticisms here are directed at very small words in the article that aren’t really about the article at all, but about us, economists, and our relationship to various publics, our professional PR, our toxic guild label. On the actual content of the article, the premise, the spirit, the recommendations I am quite on board.
Alright, let’s do this.
Dodgy economics is flying around left and right as the new GOP health bill is being piñata-ed from all sides this week. One particular strand is the charge of economism in the political rhetoric around healthcare. I want to talk a little about that since it relates to the teaching of introductory economics. In sum I want to claim that there is no great crisis in econ 101 being reflected here, but that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that marginal changes could have a big impact in how the median econ 101 student absorbs our material.
“In a stunning development today, the President of the United States failed the Turing test while delivering an incomprehensible press conference, thus, by law, ushering in the Age of Machines.”
What does it take to build a case for a policy? One interpretation of the increasingly fashionable Overton window is to redefine the limits of the acceptable by systematically injecting extreme positions into the discourse, to the point where the previously-extreme becomes normal. What’s important is to get a foot in the door.
As a practical matter, academic citations are one currency of discourse that can be used and abused in this way. Once an idea has a foot in the door, legitimized by publication in an established, well-regarded outlet, academic culture requires that it will inevitably be cited. The problem of distinguishing positive from negative citations is well known. Exhaustive citation of prior literature is the standard practice, and understandably, since for those with institutional access to academic journals, the cost is low and the benefits—engaging with other researchers, appeasing referees, demonstrating expertise—are quite high.
(On that note, check out this recent Journal of Economic Perspectives article for some I-can’t-believe-this-is-necessary-but-it-definitely-is tips on how to be a good referee. I’ve said before that explicit separation of powers would go a long way—editors make publication decisions, referees review without being asked for a recommendation.)
The influence of an idea becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, then, as citation counts grow. The more subtle stage is when these metrics of influence escape the academic sphere and are used as evidence in external advocacy. Michael Waldman’s book on the Second Amendment makes a case that the strategy of the NRA proceeded from a “foot in the door” of law review articles promoting a particular interpretation, which generated debate and citations, providing a self-perpetuating corpus of material for lawyers and judges to cite in practice.
It’s a Catch-22 and not an easy one. Of course we want to encourage a broad range of ideas and arguments, but it is very difficult to engage with arguments without validating them. The squeaky, motivated wheel gets the grease of scarce academic attention, and so not only enters the discourse but crowds out other efforts. The tactic generates loaded questions and a false dichotomy that moves the rhetorical ground underneath our feet independently of whatever argument we had originally wanted to advance. But this is nothing new. What is special to academia is the we must at this point cite the prior art, and citations are our currency. The institution validates all ideas in the same way, no matter what the average researcher truly thinks of them.
I think few academics would openly advocate for a world in which scholarly communications are passed through politicized filters. Yet that is the world we have. Everything is political, as they say, and so the decision to publish an argument inescapably exercises power far beyond the author and the potential readers.
In the context of economics, so often close to the ground of policy debates but whose intent and bias are so often misunderstood in the popular press, I think surveys of the economics profession are an undervalued weapon. These certainly exist but I think they deserve more resources, prestige, and promotion to act as ballast against a drift towards controversy, misconception, and squeaky wheels. Get them into our top journals and grant money for their thoughtful design and execution. Our areas of consensus should be as clichéd as the old “97% of climate scientists agree” line that I’m sure we have all come across at some time. People should grow bored of how often economists agree.
From the album Cashmere.