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August 04, 2014

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kevin denny

Its not a bad idea. Getting the right person would be difficult partly for the reasons you mention but also because someone familiar with macro' theory might know very little applied micro.
Personally I would like someone who's job it is to write to the papers everytime some economics mistake or inaccuracy was reported: a tiresome but useful job.

David Ballard

@ kevin denny. In the US, Dean Baker does what you describe (point out economics mistakes in the media) in his series "Beat the Press" http://www.cepr.net/beat-the-press/

donald

"Telegraph readers won't want to hear evidence against austerity, nor Guardian readers evidence that markets sometimes work."

This is a bit unfair on Guardian readers. I'm pretty sure the vast majority agree that markets are good for lots things.

From Arse To Elbow

Academic economists lost public credibility in 2008 despite being largely blameless for the preceding era's policy (unlike the paid shills of the City and rightwing thinktanks).

Similarly, they had a bad rep in the 70s due to stagflation etc. The result was an attempt to cultivate respect by creating a more empirical basis for their discipline (just like scientists), with a heavy emphasis on maths and microfoundations.

In other words, attempting to overcome the barriers you note was a contributory factor in the evolution of academic economics as we know it today.

donald

It might be more practical and more useful to have some kind of commitment from news papers to certain standards or economic and scientific literacy, as well as honest use of statistics.

Perhaps they could have a resident economist/scientist/stats chap that would be required to sign off on and, if necessary, publicly defend the use of economics/science/stats etc.

Luis Enrique

we just need to clone Tim Harford

Geekyisgood

I'm with Luis! Even better if we can cross him with Martin Lewis, who is a great communicator on personal finance.

I think ideally a few universities would have such a post, and applications would be open to those outside traditional academic research (like Tim Harford) or people who have spent most of their time in academia teaching. If enough universities got involved with this then I think you could get a good mix of micro and macro.

I've found the blog posts on this topic really interesting but one thing springs to mind - public engagement is really hard, especially when you're also devoting a lot of time and energy to research. It's a bit like switching between languages. At the moment a few dedicated and enthusiastic (and generally talented) individuals take the time, but I think for many academics the day job of teaching and research is hard enough before learning a bunch of other skills to talk to the general public when there is (as currently) very little incentive to do so. Even with incentives a lot of us just aren't going to be very good at it.

Ian

I wholeheartedly support such roles. However, your suggestion of this as a separate job to that of professor of economics doesn't seem to tally with yesterday's desire to hang all academics on the cross of being idiots.
Either being a part of wider public life is part of their* duty that they are willfully neglecting, and so the creation of a new role is spurious -- just compel academics to do their jobs, or it is not. In that case your call for specific professors to fill that void seems like a wise move.

Now, I also happen to agree that we would have a more vibrant public life if more academics engaged with it in their areas of expertise. But, and this is an important caveat, to extend this to an individual obligation on each and every academic is a stretch.

One could reasonably argue it is the duty of the academy/a university in the aggregate to encourage and provide such interaction. Indeed, instituting professorships as discussed here might be a constructive way of meeting such an obligation.


* depending on whether your critique extended beyond academics in economics this is 'our', 'we', etc.

Rumplestatskin

What are your thoughts on whether a code of ethics for economists might address this problem?

For example, if economists who were members of a professional body (e.g. AEA, EEA) had to disclose their financial interests when commenting publicly, and were obliged to disclose assumptions in their analysis that would not be apparent to a lay person.

chris

@ Rumplestatskin - I'm not sure such a code would help much. The problem with UK economists isn't really that their views are contaminated by undisclosed financial interests.

Jamie

As a non-economist who has been reading about economics for several years, I think that your heart is in the right place with this suggestion but it’s not the right answer.

There are already a number of good communicators on economics and finance. For example, I would recommend Tim Harford and John Kay to any UK non-economist looking for interesting resources. A couple of years ago Stephanie Flanders presented a short TV series on Keynes, Marx and Hayek. YouTube contains useful lecture material. Some guy called Dillow has good things to say! I’m sure there are others. The main issue with these resources is just finding the good people and material amongst piles of rubbish.

However, there are at least four main issues which face an interested non-economist.

First, economist overreach. There is an economic aspect to just about everything so there is a tendency for economists to present themselves as experts in everything: business, government, solar energy, China, healthcare etc. The problem here is that there are non-economist subject matter experts in each of these subjects who know much more than the economists. I spent many years working in business and government. Much of what I read by economists in these areas is generic and not very useful. Here is a great example – see the last two paragraphs of this article from The Guardian on Freakonomics, David Cameron and healthcare in the UK.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/15/think-like-a-freak-freakonomics-levitt-dubner-review

The question non-economists ask is what value do economists add in these areas? Other people have the subject matter knowledge and the numeracy skills to work out much of the economics of their subjects for themselves. I’m not saying that economists add no value but I’d like to know precisely what is unique about the economist’s view.

Second, macro-economics. This is the one area where economists definitely have a unique perspective. However, economists appear to want to tell non-economists WHAT to think about macro-economics, while non-economists want to learn HOW to think about macro-economics. There are several issues here: political bias of non-economists; political bias of economists; absence of common terminology; absence of common mental models; siloed academic thinking; mainstream versus heterodox issues. I did read Tim Harford’s macro book and would recommend it. However, it didn’t really touch on mental models or mainstream versus heterodox issues.

Third, right answer syndrome. Economists often seem to see their subject as an equivalent of physics i.e. there is a right answer to everything and the answer can be proved using mathematics. This means that they can come across to non-economists as very narrow and closed-minded in their outlook. Several aspects suffer because of this: philosophical aspects; economic history; competing schools of thought. Also modelling assumptions often appear to dictate conclusions.

Fourth, lack of responsiveness: Most economists communicate in a generic ‘tell’ mode only. However, what is needed is a more personalised discussion-based approach. There are examples of good practice here although they are few and far between. Tim Harford invites listener questions in at least one of his radio programmes; a few bloggers invite questions from their readers; a few academic bloggers engage in discussion with non-academic commenters e.g. Nick Rowe.

I’m sure that other non-economists would highlight different issues but any solution to current communication problems would need to address these issues. Finally, I think that these points are very similar to those made by the many student societies which are looking for a more pluralist education.

Jamie

Chris: “telling people at every opportunity that macroeconomic forecasting is not proper economics”

This is a good example of a philosophical issue which needs more discussion. You say that macroeconomic forecasting is not proper economics. On the other hand, it is evident that many macro-economists spend much of their lives developing mathematical models to forecast the future.

I agree with you but the economics profession is divided even on this basic issue.

Economists appear to want to take credit when their predictions turn out well but they fall back on “macroeconomic forecasting is not proper economics” when they don’t. That leads to a lack of trust from non-economists.

Deviation From The Mean

"For me, economics is not just - or even mainly - about policy, but about helping people with everyday decisions."

Doesn't TV 'personality' and all round tosser Martin Lewis fulfill this role? And doesn't helping people with their everyday decisions inevitably lead away from 'economics'?

For example Martin Lewis campaigned to get people to look into the possibility of changing their council tax band, in order to save money. It was 'personal advice'. He didn't mention the other side of the coin, less tax revenues for the council, and the various knock on effects. And he couldn't go through the countless other variables.

How do you avoid the "being an all round tosser like Martin Lewis paradox"?

Richard Powell

This seems an excellent idea, and I suspect that the barriers you mention may not be insurmountable.

Cambridge has a Chair in the Public Understanding of Risk. http://www.statslab.cam.ac.uk/Dept/People/Spiegelhalter/davids.html
This seems a more apposite analogue than the Chairs in the Public Understanding of Science you mentioned. Its occupant faces the same barriers that you describe, successfully as far as I can tell.

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