Friday, November 10, 2006

No offence?

Well well, I hadn’t anticipated that I was lighting a fuse with my FT article on economics. There has been more follow-up in the FT itself – Paul Ormerod wrote a very nice Comment which was partly something of a response to some of the letters claiming that economics ain’t like that any more. Paul’s point is that yes, perhaps academic economics has moved on in many ways (I should have been more explicit about that myself), but the stuff that students are taught is still very much rooted in the old tradition. And these are people who graduate and then presumably go into business and politics believing that that is what economics is about – which is precisely my concern. This squares with what Robert Hunter Wade, a professor at LSE, says in his letter to the FT about how the simplistic picture of market efficiency is what tends to filter down to policy makers. All this leaves me thinking that it’s precisely for this reason that the simple picture of rational maximizers, equilibrium and market efficiency is perhaps a rather dangerous place to start from – sure, academic economists often (even generally) then move beyond it, but not everyone who draws on economic theory has learnt it beyond graduate level.

Much of the discussion prompted by my article has taken place in the blogs, however. Some of those I’ve spotted are here and here and here and here. A lot of the debate seems to focus on how stupid and misinformed my article was (although I can’t help thinking that there wouldn’t be quite so much discussion if it was that easy). I decided to take up the challenge on Dave Altig’s blog, which has been an instructive experience. At first I was taken aback by the aggression of the discourse, which was something I’ve just not experienced in the natural sciences. I don’t know if this is something specific to the economics world, or to the blogosphere generally, but it was not a pleasant discovery. However, I’m very grateful that Dave Altig has made some very gracious and polite comments that have cooled the tone and facilitated a far more constructive exchange. I was at fault here too, taking initially a more gung-ho tone than I needed to. (I think I was probably riled by some comments I received separately from an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which had a character I’d not experienced since the school playground.) It seems also that my FT piece was misread by some as being more insulting to economists than I’d intended – if that’s the impression I gave, then I regret it. I do think one sometimes needs to be provocative in order to spark a discussion, but I’d hoped to do that without seeming to jeer or ridicule.

I can’t possibly summarize all the blogging discussion; it’s there if you’re interested. But the discussion on Dave Altig’s site has been very useful for me, helping me to sharpen what it is I want to say while pointing to some issues that I need to go away and consider. His post of 9 November gives particularly valuable food for thought; thank you Dave.


postblogger said...

Yup, aggression is fairly common in blogland. Have you read many comments in Pharyngula recently, for example? And if you're particularly interested in schadenfreude, here's a fine selection of blogosphere etiquette, in which the author of a mistaken Navier-Stokes solution answers her critics. Very but-for-the-grace-of-God in some places...

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