Category Archives: Academia

The SAEE: who was right?

Bryan Caplan argues that economists mostly agree with one another, compared to the general public, and reports results from the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy (SAEE):

The leading correlates of economists’ disagreement are political-ideology and, to a lesser extent, party affiliation. Liberal Democratic and conservative Republican economists disagree in expected ways about taxes, regulation, excessive profits and executive pay, and some employment-related issues. Conservative economists are also markedly more optimistic about the country’s economic future. Note, however, that there is little evidence of an ideological divide over the economy’s past or present performance. Economists
across the political spectrum can largely agree about the path of inequality, real income, and real wages over the past two decades.

I don’t find agreement about the past very comforting: the point of economic advice is to deliver good consequences in the future. However, I would point out that disagreements about predictions are an opportunity for retrospective assessment. Indeed, when Bryan’s paper was published, in 2002, the 5 year timeline of the predictions had already come and gone. But there’s nothing stopping us from checking now. [Note, I prepared this post up until this point with the intention of posting it before peeking at the data.] Results below the fold.

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Reinventing Idea Futures

From the April Physics World:

A key problem, suggests mathematical physicist Eric Weinstein of the Natron Group, a hedge fund in New York, is that it is too easy for scientists in the “establishment” of any field to cut down new ideas, and to do so without really putting anything at risk, thereby leading to a culture that is systematically biased toward caution. …

Weinstein suggests another idea — that we should borrow some ideas from financial engineering and make scientists back up their criticisms by taking real financial risks. You think that some new theory is utterly worthless and deserving of ridicule? In the world Weinstein envisions, you could not trash the research in an anonymous review, but would buy some sort of option giving you a financial stake in its scientific future, an instrument that would pay off if, as you expect, the work slides noiselessly into obscurity. The money would come from the theory’s proponents, who would similarly benefit if it pans out into the next big thing.

Weinstein’s point is that markets, in theory at least, work efficiently and — putting the current financial meltdown to one side — lead to the accurate valuation of products. They exploit the “wisdom of crowds”, as a popular book of the same title recently put it. Take the famous electronic prediction markets at the University of Iowa, which pool the views of thousands of diverse individuals and consistently seem to give better predictions than any expert. …

“It would be more efficient,” he says, “if the maverick could demand of the critic, if my theory is so obviously wrong, why don’t you quantify that by writing me an options contract based on future citations in the top 20 leading journals secured by your home, furniture, holiday home and pension?”

This article makes it seem like Eric reinvented idea futures.  Except that Eric and I discussed the concept last May, when we had two phone conversations and exchanged seven emails.

In 1996, a Russ Ray published a paper in Futures Research Quarterly that was basically cut and paste from my Idea Futures paper.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?  Hat tip to Jef Allbright.

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Pox On Both Houses

In the latest American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Arthur Diamond presents a very disturbing result:

Polywater, one of the most famous mistaken scientific research programs of the past half-century, is used as a case study to examine whether polywater researchers later experienced lower citation counts, or less favorable job mobility. The primary result is that simply writing on polywater, either pro or con, has a negative impact on future citations, in comparison with those who never wrote on polywater. The lifetime value of the lost citations is roughly in the range of $13,000 to $19,000. However writing on polywater did not affect the probability of a scientist leaving university employment.

Once polywater was considered a failure, not only were those who had written in its favor punished, but those who had written against it were punished just as strongly!  If this is a typical outcome, we can conclude that academic incentives are to just ignore contrarian claims that you do not believe will become mainstream.  Try to refute a contrarian claim, and even if you succeed you will be treated just like its defenders.  Together with last week's debating result:

If your side is currently favored, you don't want to debate the other side!

we can see that intellectuals have little incentive to engage contrarian views.  One possible cause here may be like "You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read".  Diamond suggests another cause:

Even if a scientist sets out to refute a theory and succeeds, the scientist might pay a penalty in that the refutation may become a forgotten dead end, not generating any further citations to the scientist who correctly authored the refutation.

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Who Loves Truth Most?

Who loves cars most?  Most people like cars, but the folks most vocal in their enthusiasm for cars are car sellers; they pay millions for ads gushing about how much their engineers love designing cars, their factory workers love building them, etc.  The next most vocal are probably car collectors, tinkerers, and racers; they'll bend your ear off about their car hobby.  Also vocal are folks visibly concerned that the poor don't have enough cars. 

But if you want to find the folks who most love cars for their main purpose, getting folks around in their daily lives, you'll have to filter out the sellers, hobbyists, and do-gooders to find ordinary people who just love their cars.  For the most part, car companies love to sell cars to make cash, car hobbyists love to use cars to show off their personal abilities, and do-gooders use cars to show off their compassion.  By comparison, those who just love to drive from point A to B don't shout much.

Truth loving is similar.  Most folks say they prefer truth, but the folks most vocal about loving "truth" are usually selling something.  For preachers, demagogues, and salesmen of all sorts, the wilder their story, the more they go on about how they love truth.  The next most vocal in their enthusiasm for truth are those who, like car hobbyists, use public demonstrations of truth-finding to show off personal abilities.  Academics, gamers, poker players, and amateur intellectuals of all sorts are proud of the fact that their efforts reveal truth, and they make sure you notice their proficiencies. And do-gooders earnestly talk about the importance of everyone understanding the truth of the uninsured, the illiterate, etc.

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Silly Consensus

A new 8min video echos this year old WSJ article:

Imagine you were a state legislator and some folks asked you to pass a law making it a crime to give advice about paint colors and throw pillows without a license. And imagine they told you that the only people qualified to place large pieces of furniture in a room are those who have gotten a college degree in interior design, completed a two-year apprenticeship, and passed a national licensing exam. …

The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) … have waged a 30-year, multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to legislate their competitors out of business. And those absurd restrictions on advice about paint selection, throw pillows and furniture placement represent the actual fruits of lobbying in places like Alabama, Nevada and Illinois  …

Fifty years ago, only 5% of the American workforce was licensed; today it is nearly 30%. We’re not talking about brain surgeons or airline pilots, either. Louisiana requires florists to be licensed (yes, florists), and in several states — including Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia — only licensed funeral directors may sell caskets.

The only supporting argument I could find at the ASID website says:

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Reveal Rejects?

Most academic papers are rejected by several journals before some journal finally accepts them.  But a paper's rejection history is usually private; all readers know is where each paper was accepted.

Imagine a journal that published all its rejections, listing rejected authors, titles, and relevant dates.  The possibility of embarrassment via appearing on such a list would "raise the bar" for authors, especially discouraging those who thought rejection more likely.  It would also raise the bar for editors; readers could see how often rejected papers were accepted at equal or better journals, and potential authors could better evaluate their chances.

Since this signal of author and editor confidence would speak well of a journal, journals that did not publish rejections should look worse by comparison.  Why then do no journals publish their rejections?  Sporting contests publicly display losers; why not academic contests as well? 

By the way, a new math journal publishes rejects only.

Added: most comments focus on the overall social effects; my puzzle is regarding individual incentives.  People are usually eager to signal confidence in their abilities; why in this context do people avoid such signals?

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College Prestige Lies

Over the next two weeks my eldest son will be rejected by some colleges, accepted by others.  And then we’ll likely have to make a hard choice, between cheap state schools and expensive prestigious ones (or online colleges).  A colleague told me the best econ paper on this found it doesn’t matter.  From its 1999 abstract:

We matched students who applied to, and were accepted by, similar colleges to try to eliminate this bias. Using the … High School Class of 1972, we find that students who attended more selective colleges earned about the same [20 years later] as students of seemingly comparable ability who attended less selective schools. Children from low-income families, however, earned more if they attended selective colleges.

A 2006 NYT article confirms this:

Higher education experts have this message … Pay less attention to prestige and more to “fit” — the marriage of interests and comfort level with factors like campus size, access to professors, instruction philosophy. … A 1999 study by Alan B. Krueger … and Stacy Dale … found that students who were admitted to both selective and moderately selective colleges earned the same no matter which they attended.

as does a 2004 Atlantic Monthly article:

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What Do Schools Sell?

Major exams like the SAT or GRE are graded anonymously; info identifying test takers is hidden from test graders.  My department follows the same policy on its major “prelim” and “field” exams.  But in virtually every class, grading of homework, exams, etc. is not anonymous, even though that would be easy to arrange.  Yes class presentations and participation couldn’t be anonymous, but the rest could. Presumably the reason major exams are anonymous is to avoid even the appearance of the possibility of bias or corruption; why allow such an appearance with classes?

Also, letters of recommendations can be nearly as important as grades.  Yet most schools have zero procedures to avoid corruption there.  Students are given no guidelines or basis for comparison; no records are kept of who recommended who for what on what basis, so there isn’t any way to even look for corruption. Why so cavalier there?

Also, profs at top schools are advised to put minimal effort into teaching, as they will be evaluated mainly on their research.  So why do students pay extra to attend colleges with research-focused teachers who mostly ignore them?

As with docs and macro-economists, let me suggest people want to affiliate with prestigious others; a major product schools sell students is a direct relationship with prestigious faculty.  Anonymous class grading is avoided because it would reduce an important personal tone in the student teacher relationship; the possibility of corruption goes along with a personal connection.

Yes, colleges credential student performance, and those credentials would be more valuable if they better avoided the appearance of corruption.  But in addition to performance credentials schools are selling college students the ability to claim relationships with about fifty teachers, and to claim a closer relation with the few who write recommendation letters.  Perhaps students care about those relations nearly as much or more than they do about performance credentials.

Added: Schools also sell affiliation with other high status students.
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Informers and Persuaders

Suppose we lived in this completely alternate universe where nothing in academia was about status, and no one had any concept of style.  A universe where people wrote journal articles, and editors approved them, without the tiniest shred of concern for what "impression" it gave – without trying to look serious or solemn or sophisticated, and without being afraid of looking silly or even stupid.  We shall even suppose that readers, correspondingly, have no such impressions.

In this simpler world, academics write papers from only two possible motives:

First, they may have some theory of which they desire to persuade others; this theory may or may not be true, and may or may not be believed for virtuous reasons or with very strong confidence, but the writer of the paper desires to gain adherents for it.

Second, there will be those who write with an utterly pure and virtuous love of the truthfinding process; they desire solely to give people more unfiltered evidence and to see evidence correctly added up, without a shred of attachment to their or anyone else's theory.

People in the first group may want to signal membership in the second group, but people in the second group only want their readers to be well-informed.  In any case, to first order we must suppose that none of this is about signaling – that all such motives are just blanked out.

What do journal articles in this world look like, and how do the Persuaders' articles differ from the Informers'?

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Academic Ideals

Academia doesn't live up to its noble image. Philosopher Peter Fosl: 

Although academics will hardly raise an eyebrow about this "open secret," it comes as a surprise to many others to learn that many philosophers … are little devoted to the love of wisdom. In only a merely "academic" way do they aspire to intellectual virtue. Even less often do they exhibit qualities of moral excellence. On the contrary, many philosophers, or what pass as philosophers, are, sadly, better described as petty social climbers, meretricious snobs, and acquisitive consumerists.  I blush a bit now to confess that part of what drove me into philosophy in the first place was the naive conviction that among those who call themselves lovers of wisdom I would find something different in kind from the repugnant and shallow brutalism of the worlds of finance, business, and the law.  …

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