Rah Arrogance

A month ago I wrote:

Would be innovators must now combine two risky decisions:

  1. What innovative ideas or projects are ripe and promising to purse now?
  2. Who is best placed or skilled to attempt the realization of each idea?

People who pitch project ideas to venture capitalists often focus on convincing them of #1, idea quality, not realizing that if you convince them of that but not #2, your team quality, they will just steal your idea and give it to another better team. Usually they hear from several teams pitching pretty similar concepts, so they are judging mainly on team quality. Knowing this, sophisticated innovators tend to neglect idea quality, and focus on team quality.

Alas, academics similarly pay much more attention to what teams and projects might achieve prestigious publications on currently fashionable topics, than to which topics should be fashionable, for intellectual progress and social value. Individual academic incentives are to publish well on current fashions, predict future fashions, and perhaps to nudge fashion toward topics where they can more easily publish.

There is little academic prestige in arguing that currently fashionable topics aren’t especially socially useful. Those who now publish in such areas know who they are and will oppose you, while those who would publish more in new areas, if they became fashionable, mostly don’t know who they are.

When other academics visit GMU econ, one of the most consistent and striking differences I notice is how few of them will say much about how their research fits into a bigger picture of what academia or the world needs overall. Even when directly asked. I’m proud that my colleagues usually have much more to say here. Why are we different? Perhaps we are arrogant, thinking highly of our own contributions. If so, I salute such arrogance. With it, at least some academics think of the big picture.

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