Saturday, June 20, 2020

Sins of Omission and the Practice of Economics

A recent paper by George Akerlof assesses the discipline of Economics and argues for a reshaping of publication and promotion processes to encourage greater exploration of a range of exploratory and interdisciplinary research.
This paper advances the proposition that economics, as a discipline, gives rewards that favor the “hard” and disfavor the “soft.” Such bias leads economic research to ignore important topics and problems that are difficult to approach in a “hard” way— thereby resulting in “sins of omission.”This paper argues for reexamination of current institutions for publication and promotion in economics—as it also argues for greatly increased tolerance in norms for publication and promotion as one way of alleviating narrow methodological biases. (JEL A11, B40).
The paper argues that the development of rigorous mathematical methodological standards in economics has created career structures that incentivise very high degrees of specialisation in quantitative economic problems without a corresponding emphasis on the importance of those problems and potentially at a cost of addressing questions that don't lend themselves to being addressed by frontier professional methods. This focus both leads to "sins of omission" in terms of topics being ignored, but also selection into the discipline and progress through the hierarchy of the discipline of people particularly suited to devoting their lives to "hard" economic methods rather than people interested in seeking out new areas of inquiry. The unusually strict focus in Economics on a small set of top journals in allocating posts is both a potential cause and consequence of the collective attempt to maintain the status of the discipline as a hard scientific endeavour. His analysis is in the spirit of Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions, viewing the evolution of these practices as essentially a sociological process and one that can be challenged and discussed in a deliberative fashion rather than accepted as a natural evolution of the scientific process. He argues in particular that we should look for ways to encourage students and early career researchers to focus more directly on the importance of their questions rather than their fit with dominant methodological paradigms.

The paper is fascinating and I imagine will trigger a lot of debate and discussion across the discipline. In teaching economics throughout the years, some of my worst experiences involved seeing some of our top students think of the discipline as not being something they wanted to pursue, not because they weren't interested in economic questions or equipped with a substantial skillset in research methods and intrinsic motivation, but rather due to being deterred by the very regimented almost militaristic framing of graduate Economics education. On the other hand, as acknowledged by Akerlof, the development of econometrics and the core toolkit of economics in the 20th century has allowed the accumulation of a pedagogy and set of practices that, in their best expression, provide rigorous and sometimes counterintuitive analyses of a range of core welfare questions (for example, I regularly direct students grappling with these tensions to the work of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, where the most rigorous microeconometric methods are developed in the context of ongoing policy problems). It is unsurprising that the core contributors to such progression would work toward advancing it and tend to suspicion of novel ideas that have not overcome the type of hurdles required in the rigours of the publication and training processes. His paper is less insightful on how the emergence of a new set of norms would provide some sort of gate-keeper function for allocating esteem in the discipline, which seems like a pretty mundane consideration but is, of course, important to the people who devote their lives to the endeavour, even from the basic point of view of having some predictability that devotion to research would be recognised in career progression. Having said that, the discipline review processes he advocates in the conclusion of the paper are clearly one way of advancing ideas in this direction.

The emergence of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary areas such as the various streams of behavioural science and policy discussed in this blog is one potential reaction against the types of processes that Akerlof describes. I think the distinction between what a lot of people at the intersection of disciplines such as economics and psychology call "behavioural science" and what Akerlof describes as mainstream economics are interesting to think about along the lines he opens up in the paper e.g. it is interesting to think about the selection of people who work in these areas, the type of problems they are interested in, the extent to which methods in these areas can be thought of along the hard/soft dimension, the career implications for people who move from the disciplinary focus to a transdisciplinary perspective, hierarchy and team structures, prestige of different publication outlets, and so on. As a brief endnote, Akerlof's paper, "Identity and Economics", co-authored with sociologist Rachel Kranton, is a brilliant expression of the issues he addresses. I have taught the paper in classes for over a decade and it has generated constant fascination among the type of students I spoke about above who are gripped by economic questions but deterred by the professional structures that point away from doing this type of work.

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