In what seems at least uncharacteristic of a research economist in a Central Bank, Kartik Athreya [Updated link] as written an opinion piece (or if it were on a blog, a post) criticising economics opinion writers and bloggers. The one thing that is certain is this creates a big target for economics bloggers to re-criticise.
In reading this, Athreya is clearly frustrated. Economists are supposed to lay out assumptions, draw logical conclusion and debate the evidence before commenting on policy. The blogosphere doesn’t do that. In Athreya’s opinion, it is because (a) they can’t or (b) are scientifically dishonest. Apparently, this is not meant to offend but really.
What is certainly true is Athreya is not expressing a narrowly-held opinion. Most of my academic colleagues are worried about the same thing. This is precisely why they do not blog or write opinion pieces. How can they possibly do in 400 words what should take them at least 40 pages of carefully developed argument? And this is precisely why it is so hard to get academics to engage in public debate. They aren’t comfortable doing it. It shouldn’t surprise us then that, given the demand for such commentary, the supply gets filled by non-academics.
But some of us do engage in commentary and rarely do we set out to communicate according to the prescriptions of academic discourse. There would be little point as that is not what is demanded. I’ve written thousands of blog posts and hundreds of opinion pieces. For the most part, there is an academic literature in the background of what I write but I’ll rarely draw directly from it. It is hardly ever perfectly relevant. When it is, however, I’ll drag it in. But in all that writing I can only point to a handful where I was too loose. But that is the price of putting comments out there. My hope is that broadly, this activity is reputation building rather than destroying.
There is another side to this. Put simply, the academic path of disclosure of ideas is limited precisely because at the moment in economics (at least), it can’t accommodate the half-baked idea. This is tragic in many respects because it is highly likely that half-baked is as much as many ideas in the hands of one individual or their close network can get. But in the hands of the many, the job can be completed. To strangle communication at the interim stage means you deny cumulative ‘cooking’ of the ideas by those who can best do them.
Athreya is basically arguing that the marketplace for economic ideas is failing because poor suppliers are not punished enough in terms of lost reputation. It is not clear to me that that is the case but if you regard Paul Krugman or Brad de Long as a poor supplier then it is true that they are hardly getting punished. But really, Athreya provides no evidence at all other than personal frustration to support that hypothesis.
As a final remark, I find it interesting that within the Australian blogosphere the academic contributors (e.g., Leigh, Quiggin, Frijters, King) are also amongst the most successful academic publishers. Call me crazy but unless you think that these people have divided personalities when sitting in front of WordPress versus sitting in ‘front’ of Scientific Word, there is a case that academic success and blogging reputation are complements rather than substitutes.