Blogging and researching

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.

6 thoughts on “Blogging and researching”

  1. For me, perhaps others, economics is but a mud pie we’re encouraged to eat by interest groups attempting to align some part of the legislative environment with their interests. Any academic economists refusing to be drawn into this public debate, (however wise this decision is) even if they are merely refusing particular fora, is willfully abdicating their currently important role.

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  2. I find it very frustrating – whenever a new govt policy is released interested parties simply trot out their preferred economist to support their view. As a consumer you tend to end up listening to those economist that best match your world view or economic interest.

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  3. Nightfilla: Yes, you’d almost think that economists are as partisan as the rest of us and that their allegedly scientific knowledge is just a cover for ideology. But that’s crazy talk, right?

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  4. It was really quite a ridiculous piece.  But the poor guy is getting slammed all over the blogosphere, so I’ll leave it to others to critique him.  (You are probably the most sympathetic response I’ve seen!)
    But it is an interesting question to consider how academic ideas will be generated and disseminated in the future.  The importance of being published in prestigious journals could break down as ideas are formed more dynamically, with outside feedback throughout the process which could improve the quality of the work.  It is hard to see what these journals offer other than their exclusivity.  Of course there will be more noise as academics self-publish their work, but at the same time, the filters will improve to help find the most influential work.  I imagine someone will develop ideas like Google’s PageRank algorithm counting citations between academic blogs.
    And the dissemination of these ideas to the public has been vastly improved by blogs.  Previously the general public would have to rely on journalists to (mis?)interpret and summarise academic work to be published in newspapers or on TV news.  The fact that instead I can now read interpretations of economic events and studies from Mankiw, Krugman, Becker, Cowen and the crew here at Core Economics is simply revolutionary.

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  5. My question is whether any of this ever helps us to make better decision making. Take any topic say effects of illegal immigration on incomes and you will find some economists agreeing and some disagreeing.  So who does the policy maker believe? I suspect that in the end the policy maker goes with what sounds right to them.

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  6. Nightfilla: Reminds me of that old joke… “if you laid all the economists in the world end to end you still wouldn’t reach a conclusion”.
     
    (and this si coming from someone who trained as an economist)

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