Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Lesson in Scholarly Ranting

Brad Delong, US doyen of the economics bloggers, writes (25 March) (HERE):

Is Adam Smith Partly an Economist, or Wholly a Moral Philosopher?”

“Tiago at History of Economics Playground reacted very negatively to an AEA Annual Meeting presentation by Robert Shiller and Virginia Shiller:

Bad job « History of Economics Playground: Imagine I write a paper on Behavioral Macroeconomics making off the cuff observations about the latest financial products and how my bank manager frames that information, and noting my friends and neighbors’ flight to safety or to risk on the flimsiest of whims. Imagine I make no reference to secondary literature, or to methodology as I approach the questions. Were I then to submit this piece to general appreciation, say get Robert Shiller to referee it. How do you think he would assess my effort?

I am sure we would be fast and dirty in telling me to do something else with my time.

I have not written a paper on Behavioral Macroeconomics and have no intention of doing so. But Shiller has written a working paper, kind of on the history of economics (Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper No. 1788 – Economists as Worldly Philosophers). There is no thread to the argument, no understanding of context, and zero references to the vast body of work by historians on his subject. The working paper, I am sure, will get plenty of readers, downloads and comments. But were I ever to referee it, I would be fast and dirty in telling him to do something else with his time.

I read this as Tiago policing the subdisciplinary boundaries: nobody working in the history of economic thought has any business writing about finance or behavioral macro, and nobody working in finance or behavioral macro has any business talking about how looking at the history of economic thought informs what the future of economics should be.

So I asked:

So what is it in the working paper by Robert Shiller and Virginia Shiller that you think is wrong?

Tiago responded:

You want me to referee it? Someone missed the point of my post.

Economics appears somehow ready formed and fully bounded from the beginning. Take this: “Adam Smith was a professor, not of economics but of moral philosophy. His The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, was a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and economics.” — the anachronism of the statement makes me cringe.

A reference to a Baltimore Sun article to announce the emergence of economics departments? What about saying something about the importation of the German Research University or the context of the Progressive Era shaping standards of expertise and advocacy and trust in numbers.

And then the whole thesis is pants. Economists never stopped being “worldy philosophers” even if the public sphere has changed and become less accepting of certain brands of generalists — vide a forthcoming conference and special issue of History of Political Economy on Public Intellectuals in Economics (shameless self-plug).

I could go on ad nauseum. Nearly sentence by sentence.”

[There is much more in the link.]

Memo: if you do not know your history of economics well, especially about Adam Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Marx, and the neo-classical big players, stay your urge to pontificate about the subject.

This is Brad Delong at his polemical norm. His post is much longer, so follow the link to get the idea of what he is on about.

He tears into Tiago with scalpel-like precision and gives a master-class on scholarly demolition of a hasty and exaggerated outburst from Tiago.

Lesson 101: write not in haste; take time to reflect. Put the offending piece down and come back to it several hours, or, better still, a day or two, later.

Even much better, respond in underplayed and softly vocalised prose, where less is more, unless you are sure, very, very sure of your command of the subject you are disputing.



Blogger Peter G. said...

Gavin, I see your point, but I have to admit I'm with Tiago on this one. It's not a question of "policing disciplinary boundaries," as Brad puts it, but of taking a scholarly field seriously. If one is going to write a paper on X, one should know the secondary literature on X, period. (And if someone is an expert on Y, that does not automatically give him credibility on X.) For some reason, the history of economic thought is considered an exception to this. Many famous economists have written dilettantish, shallow, and uninformed pieces on various historical figures and theories, never even considering that there might be, you know, a whole field of experts and literature on this stuff. When people like Shiller and Shiller do this, they should be called out for it.

3:53 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks Peter for your corrective slant on Brad's post. I was struck by Brad's piece because it was corrective of Tiago's sweeping, and in parts abusive, slant on Shiller & Shiller. I was not making a judgement who was right on the substance of Tiago or Shiller.

Brad, in my experience of his Blog, is often right on matters I know something about - the legacy of Adam Smith - and I have long admired his work on the Blog and in class on the history of economic thought.

He is a robust controversialist, though I do not agree with all of his views on politics (I avoid commentary on US politics, because I do not vote there).

I agree, "one should know the secondary literature on X", but I am somewhat hostile to the view that the 'secondary' literature (especially when commentary on the primary texts and its associative 'interpretative' secondary literature becomes 'established' as gospel and the truth about primary meanings, and when it is repeated endlessly to justify errors (as much of the modern discourse on Adam Smith demonstrates).

Conference papers often breed wildly wrong - and badly written - early drafts. They may be ignored quietly, or specific errors commented on factually. Ill-mannered attacks on unorthodox presentations, using the 'authority' of 'if I was a referee'-type put-downs is, distasteful, and a branch of scholarly arrogance, which I picked up in Tiago's piece.

I am sure we would agree on having more care and respect for the work of others, especially when they are wrong. The Republic of Letters is about mutual education, not a select priesthood of orthodox exclusiveness.


6:50 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


I have now read Shiller and Shiller's paper. Seems a fairly typical conference piece, aimed at provoking a discussion, I assume. It is not a high theory paper.

Other than that I do not see much wrong with it. I do not necessarily agree with (I've long been suspicious of Heilbroner - especially on Adam Smith).


3:09 pm  

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