Thursday, November 12, 2009

Are All Economists Jerks?

After my post yesterday on the ad-homonym attacks directed at Steve Levitt and Steve Dubner by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, commentator Chuck reminded me of something that appeared on Greg Mankiw's blog a couple of years ago.

It was interesting to re-read it as I have recently been in a number of situations where other social scientists have been at best weary and at worst openly hostile to economists. Economists tend to be direct. In fact, this is often what attracts people to economics in the first place. I was just talking yesterday to a group of new public policy students and was asked what attracted me to economics originally. I told them of my experience studying as an undergraduate in India. Many fellow students on the trip (all Lewis & Clark College students in one of their numerous exceptional overseas study trips) were, to my mind, too ready to make blanket statements and accept them as truth without any real data. For example, the colonial malfeasance of the British was roundly condemned and accused of being the source of India's then current misery (this was 1988-89). That could be true, I thought, but how would you know? The colonial experience did leave India with a pretty impressive rail system, advanced bureaucracy and the like, so on balance was the colonial experience good or bad?

I got impatient with what I perceived to be lazy thinking and wanted to be able to provide more concrete answers. My personality type was well suited to economics. We are often, and sometime justly, accused to over-formality and over-confidence in our results, but this adherence to formality is also what keeps us precise and allows us to quickly get to the essence of each other's work. So when you see economists banter, something that seems entirely friendly and stimulating to me can seem quite aggressive and impolite to others. And inevitably, when we don't tone down our act to people in other disciplines, we can do quite and efficient job of pissing them off (excuse my language).

Anyway after that preamble here is the provocative Mankiw post that I offer with no further comment except to say that 'we are the smartest' is just stupid and therefore contradicts the proposition from the start:

The Sociology of Economics

A reader sends this interesting letter:

Dear Professor Mankiw,

I'm a resident at one of the Harvard hospitals. In the past couple of years I've had the chance to attend a number of inter-disciplinary seminars where you have statisticians, physicians, sociologists, anthropologists, epidemiologists and economists present. I've been impressed with what your discipline has to say: in virtually every seminar the economists are able to say something useful. Without inflating your ego, I've also noticed that the economists present better papers and are less likely to be caught off-guard in a seminar. They are also more likely to discover problems in the work of others. I've been trying to educate myself on the economic way of thinking by reading your blog, Freakonomics, and now, by slowly reading your textbook. But clearly, there's no substitute to being formally trained as one.

My question to you doesn't concern economics, but more its sociology. So feel free to ignore this email. At the seminar that I attend most often, I've noted the following:

1. The economists are the most aggressive people in the room. They have little patience for introductions, motivation, or "being nice". They want to spend the first 10 minutes trying to figure out the -entire- talk. If they're not happy, they tend to disengage. I will note that they're like this with each other also. Why are things this way in economics? There must be pluses and minuses to this way of interacting.

2. The economists are the only social-scientists in the room that are willing to argue with the statisticians. This could be that you are a more argumentative lot in the absence of substance, but also that you know something. I'm not qualified to tell who wins these disputes, but the statisticians seem to regard the economists with a high degree of regard. Why do you think that different disciplines view the importance of statistics differently?

3. There seems to no love lost between the economists and other social-sciences. Some of this has to do with the nature of interferce in the two disciplines: your colleagues are always concerned about confounders. Other disciplines like "to tell a story"; confounders are certainly of concern to them, but the issues of bi-directional causality, and omitted variables seem of second-order importance to them. As a physician, I share your colleagues view of the importance of "selection bias" (nice term, incidentally). Why do you think that different disciplines weight the role of confounders differently?

I posed these questions to one of the economists who regularly attends. His response (that I have permission to send to you) is as follows:

"In general, economists are smarter (we may be better looking too). It's fashionable not to say such things, but I will bet that if you look at the GRE and SAT scores of incoming PhD students at BU, Harvard and MIT, the average economist will sit at a higher percentile than the average (non-economist) social-scientist. Given that all the other disciplines are trying to recruit students with higher scores, I'm not willing to believe the explanation that these disciplines value other attributes that aren't measured in the GRE. Higher salaries in economics will tend to reinforce the "economists are smarter" phenomena. Smart people don't have the time waiting for the less-smart to catch up. If we can finish up the seminar in 10 minutes, then why not do it?

"To this ex ante advantage, add the role of superior and more rigorous training. Economics graduate school is not for slackers. It's like boot-camp in the Army. One example of this is that we are provided a much deeper understanding of statistics than every other social-science. Consequently, economists are able to publish in journals like JASA and the Annals of Statistics. No other social science is able to do this with the same frequency. This superior training, complemented by a generally higher comfort-level with mathematics is the principal reason for why economists will not shy away from statistics. I wish I had concrete evidence for my argument. At present, it's indirect evidence. But this "economics know more stats" argument is another reason for why we are more aggressive; we are able to see the strengths and weaknesses of a study faster than others who're not as fluent in the methods.

"Third, the set of advocates who are economists is quite small (I don't know if this reflects treatment or selection). In general, economists are more likely to make up their minds about whether a particular policy works based on theory or data. They may have priors, but not the the sort of "do-gooder"priors that advocates have. One of the reasons that economists are so aggressive with the non-economists is that we want to expose all the priors immediately. In my view, a lot of non-economics social science is straight advocacy. There is an important role for advocacy. It may influence policy more than science. But the nature of advocacy is to simplify and ignore nuance and confounding. But our (economists) beef with advocacy isn't its lack of nuance. We just get really upset when advocacy masquerades as science.

"Fourth, the economics job-market is just that -- a market. This means that the best people are more likely to be at the best programs. In other disciplines there are more "bad matches" (good people at bad places). What this means is that Harvard and MIT's economics departments are more likely to have the top economists than the Sociology Department is likely to have the top sociologists. This is important because what you're seeing at the Harvard seminars is an exchange between the best economists and not necessarily the best sociologists. The best sociologists may be able to clobber a mediocre economist."

I'm curious if you have some of your own observations to add to the above.

Best regards,
[name withheld]

These are fascinating questions. I see a lot of truth to the observations described in the letter. I have heard many others note, for example, that economists are generally more aggressive in seminars than other academics. I am not sure how to explain this fact.

To the hypotheses in the letter, let me add one additional conjecture, which is less charitable to me and my colleagues: Perhaps the skills that make a good economist are, for some reason, negatively correlated with the attributes associated with being an agreeable human being. That is, economics may attract people with a particular set of personality attributes, and perhaps these attributes are not the same set of attributes you might choose for your next dinner party.

This is not entirely conjecture on my part. For example, this study
"explores the relationship between student's personality types, as measured by the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, and their performance in introductory economics. We find that students with the personality types ENTP, ESTP, and ENFP do significantly worse in Principles of Macroeconomics than identical students with the personality type ISTJ."
What is this personality type ISTJ that excels in economics class? Check out this description, which say in part:

The ISTJ is not naturally in tune with their own feelings and the feelings of others.
Sounds like any economist you know?

Note the overconfidence the economist has in the economics job market - typically Harvard, where many of the faculty were trained at Harvard in the first place. Most schools don't do this as a matter of policy (inbreeding is bad it is thought) but since all the smartest students go to Harvard for their Ph.D. it is natural that this is whom they should hire... An academic job market is a complicate matching process that clears quickly, a good economist knows that final placement is not a perfect reflection of smarts and talent. Plus affiliation helps a lot in publishing so do the best economists work at the best departments or do the best departments help define who is good?


Dann Cutter said...

My concern upon reading this is that it quickly establishes a market precedent wherein: if an economist not hired by a top economics program is therefore not a top mind and a mediocre economist, thus we should dismiss his contributions as lacking and consequently less than his peers. Where does that leave a economist at say, OSU? :-)

Jeff Alworth said...

If this is true, economists should take special care to subject their own conclusions to the same scrutiny they subject others'. Hubris is not uncommon among the exceptional.

Patrick Emerson said...


Hubris is exactly the word I used yesterday with the students, economists are certainly guilty of it from time to time and probably more so than other social scientists. Because of out self-perceived precision, we are pretty damn sure we know the answers when other fields often are less confident. This is both good and bad, by the way, this confidence that we can find the answer pushes the field and makes it better.


Right, it is clearly nonsense. I am the world's best economist, as I am sure everyone would agree, and yet I am humble enough to work at OSU! I will say that the economics job market is pretty fluid and so there is, in general, a sorting that happens, but it is by no means complete and other preferences get in the way - like wanting to live in Oregon. Besides lots of superstars get hired by top departments and then flop. So it is still a crap-shoot with the young-ins...

MPPBrian said...

As someone who studies public policy, they way I see it is that different disciplines (and subdisciplines) contribute to different parts of our understanding. I value economists because they often are able to provide us with the best information possible about the potential impacts of a public policy idea. For instance, health economists have provided very convincing arguments that capping the tax exclusion for employer provided health insurance would be an effective way to control health care costs over the long term.

That being said, the approval of economists does not generally lead to approval in Congress. That is why the political process, public opinion, etc are worthy of study. We may not be able to come up with statistically significant results about how you use the political process to accomplish policy goals, but that doesn't mean that there aren't a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods to improve our understanding and use of the policymaking system.

Eugene said...

Economists have a miserable record of prediction and when proven wrong with time they always come up with a lame excuse that they overlooked z-wt or the factor n was larger than figured and effected the outcome. Purely geuessing is just as likely to be right.