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Doctor X, "pure shit" and the Royal Society's motto   Edward Fullbrook   RWER Blog

Recently at a large party I found myself sitting next to a very likable young middle-aged academic tenured at an elite British university, whom henceforth I will refer to as Doctor X and whose field is closely associated with this blog. Doctor X was unfamiliar with both the Real-World Economics Review and the World Economics Association.  But when I described the purposes of the latter, in particular the fostering of a professional ethos that prioritized the advancement of knowledge rather than the preservation of orthodoxies and the promotion of vested interests, there was an instantaneous recognition of a central relevance to his/her intellectual and career situation.

"Every year I publish papers in the top journals and they're pure shit."  Doctor X, who by now had had a glass or two, felt bad about this, not least because "students these days are so idealistic and eager to learn; they're really wonderful."  Furthermore Doctor X could and would like "to write serious papers but what would be the point?"

I then listened to an explanation of Doctor X's predicament that went roughly like this.

One naturally feels loyalty to one's immediate colleagues.  The amount of funding Doctor X's department receives depends not on how many papers or their quality its members publish, but instead on in which journals they are published.   The journals in Doctor X's field in which publication results in substantial funding will not publish "serious papers" but instead only "pure shit" papers, meaning ones that merely elaborate old theories that nearly everyone knows are false.   Moreover, even to publish a "serious paper" in addition to the "pure shit" ones could taint the department's reputation, resulting in a reduction of its funding.   In any case, no one at a top university would read a "serious paper" because they only read "top journals."

Memory of this little encounter came rushing back to me a few minutes ago when reading in today's The Observer an opinion piece by Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society.  In a few words he nicely spells out how real science operates and how Doctor X, perhaps no less than me, wishes economics would operate.

   Good science is a reliable way of generating knowledge because of the way it is done.  It is based on reproducible observation and experiment, taking account of all evidence and not cherry-picking data.  Scientific issues are settled by the overall strength of that evidence combined with rational, consistent and objective argument.  Central to science is the ability to prove that something is not true, an attribute which distinguishes science from beliefs based on religions and ideologies, which place more emphasis on faith, tradition and opinion.

    A good scientist is inherently sceptical - the Royal Society's motto, in Latin of course, roughly translates as "take nobody's word for it".


This is how, in a world of financialized politics, the wealthy few control a vital academic discipline to insure their power remains unchallenged by ugly truths. See also the illuminating comment by Paul Davidson.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Jun 30th, 2013 at 05:32:15 PM EST
Am I the only one to be so naive as to think that the above situation illustrates a discipline at the tipping point of dramatic change? Is it conceivable that a significant portion of tenured academics across numerous elite universities might together rebel against this regime, expose its essence and set up an alternative, exercising intellectual freedom and demanding academic freedom, along with the funding to pursue normal research?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Jun 30th, 2013 at 05:40:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The realisation of the amount of crap in economics and its structure does seem to be growing, and hopefully something comes out of it. Though I have a hard time to check for my own growing realisation of just how corrupt it is, and my own hopes for a revolution in economics.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Sun Jun 30th, 2013 at 06:02:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Theology departments did not disappear from universities nor were they reformed. New academic disciplines were created instead. The same may happen to Economics.

Finance is the brain [tumour] of the economy
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jul 1st, 2013 at 05:12:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In Sweden, old universities has theology departments. Newer has departments of religious studies with a social science perspective. But the line is far from clear, theology and religious studies departments educate both religion teachers (junior high and high school teachers, where the goal of the subject is to educate about different religions) and priests, though it appears priests must finish their education in Uppsala or Lund, the two really old universities.

So there is probably some kind of scale from orthodox to reformed, with theological parts of theology departments at one end and very social science parts of religious studies departments at the other.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Jul 2nd, 2013 at 01:56:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm talking about reforming 17th century (not 1970s) Theology to accomodate the scientific revolution. It didn't happen.

Finance is the brain [tumour] of the economy
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 2nd, 2013 at 02:26:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah. No, that did not happen.

This ties into something I have been thinking about regarding academic disciplines that are dominant in political elite discourse and thus required reading to get into the political elite. I think they tend to be tailored after the needs of the ruling elite, in terms of collective narrative to motivate teh existence of said elite, common language and tools of power. These do not always match, claiming for example that military victory is granted by God serves the narrative well regarding the victories that brought the eltie into power but serves poorly in understanding military as a tool of power.

So do empires change their dominant academic discipline, and if so how does it happen? Which leads to the question of what was the dominant academic discipline of past empires. Was history mandatory for the Brittish elite, and if so does the fall of the Brittish empire explain why the grand narratives died in history?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Jul 2nd, 2013 at 02:49:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
does the fall of the British empire explain why the grand narratives died in history?

I have not kept up on modern historiography - but the tell could be finding ongoing grand narratives, especially triumphal ones, and comparing those to the situation of the culture in which they arose. My problem is my gag reflex tends to prevent me from delving deeply enough into such histories to know.

I suspect, however, that the grand narrative could have been sustained for the USA at least into the 80s. And while the post-modernist critiques have seriously undercut such views, I don't think we can say that the US triumphalists have capitulated. But these are not the sorts of efforts that are widely supported in US Academia. History is still widely presented devoid of any meaningful social theory framework. This was the stronghold of Marxist historians and thus remains suspicious in the USA.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Jul 2nd, 2013 at 03:35:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is the real road block to ending the Dark Age.  "Top Journals" in econ usually means the top five.  Schools want professors to publish in them to boost their prestige.  Unfortunately, they're all run either by the same people or by people who agree with those people, so change only really happens from the inside.

That's not so big a problem at (say) U of Missouri-Kansas City, which is a pretty minor school within the state system.  (The flagship school is U of Missouri-Columbia.)  The administration isn't expecting them to be Harvard.

But it's a big problem at schools like Notre Dame (which fancies itself mentioned in the same breath as the Ivies), which basically had its econ department gutted over the lack of Top Fives.

I do think it's going to get better.  Certainly the blogosphere has helped open up the conversation.  And clowns like Reinhart and Rogoff have allowed departments like UMass-Amherst to gain exposure.  Getting a huge name like Jamie Galbraith to back you up helps as well (and certainly nobody can accuse the University of Texas-Austin of being an academic liteweight).

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Mon Jul 1st, 2013 at 08:17:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...adding:

I also don't think the gulf between the heterodox Post Keynesians/MMTers and the orthodox New Keynesians is as wide as the spats would lead one to believe based on Krugman and Keen being assholes to each other.

(Confidential to both: No, Paul, DSGE doesn't apply only to NK models -- in fact it didn't even originate with NK.  And no, Steve, you're the one who apparently doesn't understand ISLM, not Krugman.)

It can often appear to be the size of the Grand Canyon when I think it's more like a drainage ditch (okay, maybe a canal).  Oftentimes it seems to just devolve into word games.

Now obviously the gulf between PKs/MMTers and New Classicalists/RBCers is obviously enormous, but it seems to be that even longtime RBCers are throwing in the towel.

They all arrive at pretty much the same conclusions for dealing with our current problems, and there's a reason for that.  The differences are mostly in regard to how best to model -- and it's not that that isn't important, but it doesn't strike me as an insurmountable hurdle.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Thu Jul 4th, 2013 at 09:44:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem with Krugman and the rest of the Saltwater guys is that they are taking primitive Walrasian garbage into a sound-proofed basement and beating it with a rubber hose until it starts producing reasonable results. Pseudoscience, in other words.

Which leaves them in the fundamentally untenable position of trying to argue that their models are science, but that taking the very same models and not torturing them until they confess is pseudoscience. Or the equally untenable position of acknowledging that the pure-strain Walrasian models are science, but their tortured wrecks are as well.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Jul 4th, 2013 at 03:45:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I assume (by Walrasian) you mean general equilibrium with sticky prices/wages bolted on?

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sat Jul 6th, 2013 at 02:00:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I mean utility-optimization loanable-funds models. The Walras/Marshall discussion (general vs. partial equilibrium) is a sideshow in that respect.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Jul 7th, 2013 at 02:37:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
With you all the way on loanable funds, but why utility-optimization?

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sun Jul 7th, 2013 at 08:50:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Because it's a load of epicycles and Jesuit logic.

Tl;dr version: The human brain is not wired to find first-best solutions. The human brain is wired to find good-enough solutions.

At the risk of dabbling in evolutionary psychology, the selection pressure on human behavior is not "make the smartest decision you can possibly make." It is "make a smarter decision than the other guy, fast enough for it to matter." You do not, after all, need to outrun the tiger. You only need to outrun your friends.

Long version:
What you actually observe is behavior, not utility. Given a big enough set of observed behavior, you can assemble some behavioral heuristics that will predict agent behavior, at least in terms of some statistical aggregate.

You can, of course, always construct some sort of utility function that generates those observed behavioral heuristics when you optimize against it. But such a utility function has no predictive power over and above the set of heuristics you feed into it. This is because

(a) Humans are not consistent in their decisionmaking, so the inferred utility function will either fail to even describe (nevermind predict) observed behavior, or it will contain all sorts of ad hoc modifications reducing both parsimony and predictive power.
(b) Even if humans were consistent in their decisionmaking, no practical amount of data will allow you to specify it with sufficient accuracy and precision (you need both) to yield experimentally useful predictions.

Furthermore, we know that the inconsistency in human decisionmaking is not due to random noise, computational errors or bad input. The inconsistency is fundamental, not an error term you can graft onto your model at the end.

Human decisionmaking is inconsistent as a result of fundamental uncertainty, constraints on computational tractability and the fact that predictive output improves much slower than linearly in input accuracy, and the cost of input accuracy usually scales much faster than linearly.

Model-consistent behavior is not rational, because obtaining the input required to compute the model-consistent strategy is more expensive than just winging it based on learned and instinctive heuristics. And even with perfect and complete input information, computing the first-best solution would still be waste of wetware cycles compared to winging it based on experience and instinct.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Jul 7th, 2013 at 04:11:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I once read a paper on Sherlock Holmes that noted that Holmes's times was the last in which a man could know effectively everything.  We are now over a century from Edwardian England, yet we continue to pretend in both economics and politics that every actor is Holmes.
by rifek on Mon Jul 8th, 2013 at 12:14:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Knowing "everything" would have been a tall order even by the middle 19th C - even Holmes was careful not to attempt that, see the discussion of his knowledge of fields that he considered irrelevant to his interests in A Study in Scarlet.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jul 8th, 2013 at 05:38:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
At the risk of dabbling in evolutionary psychology, the selection pressure on human behavior is not "make the smartest decision you can possibly make." It is "make a smarter decision than the other guy, fast enough for it to matter." You do not, after all, need to outrun the tiger. You only need to outrun your friends.

That's precisely what I tell climatology deniers that tell me climate models are 'wrong': they don't have to be 'right' as long as they perform better than the competition. And that's a really low bar against the competing 'models' these deniers proffer.

by mustakissa on Tue Jul 9th, 2013 at 10:43:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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