Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Blogs and Economic Discourse

I was making my way back from a conference yesterday and completely missed the uproar over Kartik Athreya's provocative essay on economics blogs. Athreya argued, in effect, that most such blogging is done by ill-informed hacks who ought to be ignored while properly trained experts (such as himself) are left in peace to do the difficult work of making progress in the field. The original post has been taken down but (as a telling reminder that no public statement can subsequently be made private in this day and age) a copy may be viewed here.

The response from the accused was swift and brutal (see Thoma, DeLong, Sumner, Rowe, Cowen, Kling, Avent, Yglesias and Wilkinson for a sample). I don't want to pile on, and there's little I can add to what others have already said. But I'd like to take this opportunity to reiterate and expand upon a couple of points that I have made in previous posts about the rapidly changing role of blogs in economic discourse.

My view of the matter is almost diametrically opposed to that of Athreya: I consider these changes to be both irreversible and potentially very healthy. In a post commemorating the birthdays of two excellent economics blogs, I made this point as follows (see also Andrew Gelman's follow-up):
The community of academic economists is increasingly coming to be judged not simply by peer reviewers at journals or by carefully screened and selected cohorts of students, but by a global audience of curious individuals spanning multiple disciplines and specializations. Voices that have long been silenced in mainstream journals now insist on being heard on an equal footing. Arguments on blogs seem to be judged largely on their merits, independently of the professional stature of those making them. This has allowed economists in far-flung places with heavy teaching loads, or those who pursued non-academic career paths, to join debates. Even anonymous writers and autodidacts can wield considerable influence in this environment, and a number of genuinely interdisciplinary blogs have emerged...
This has got to be a healthy development. One might persuade a referee or seminar audience that a particular assumption is justified simply because there is a large literature that builds on it, or that tractability concerns preclude reasonable alternatives. But this broader audience is not so easy to convince. Persuading a multitude of informed, thoughtful, intelligent readers of the relevance and validity of one's arguments using words rather than formal models is a far more challenging task than persuading one's own students or peers. If one can separate the wheat from the chaff, the reasoned argument from the noise, this process should result in a more dynamic and robust discipline in the long run.
In fact, the refereeing process for blog posts is in some respects more rigorous than that for journal articles. Reports are numerous, non-anonymous, public, rapidly and efficiently produced, and collaboratively constructed. It is not obvious to me that this process of evaluation is any less legitimate than that for journal submissions, which rely on feedback from two or three anonymous referees who are themselves invested in the same techniques and research agenda as the author.

I suspect that within a decade, blogs will be a cornerstone of research in economics. Many original and creative contributions to the discipline will first be communicated to the profession (and the world at large) in the form of blog posts, since the medium allows for material of arbitrary length, depth and complexity. Ideas first expressed in this form will make their way (with suitable attribution) into reading lists, doctoral dissertations and more conventionally refereed academic publications. And blogs will come to play a central role in the process of recruitment, promotion and reward at major research universities. This genie is not going back into its bottle.


Update (6/30). Andrew Gelman follows up with a long and thoughtful post on the role of blogs in academic research across different fields:
Sethi points out that, compared to journal articles, blog entries can be subject to more effective criticism. Beyond his point (about a more diverse range of reviewers), blogging also has the benefit that the discussion can go back and forth. In contrast, the journal reviewing process is very slow, and once an article is published, it typically just sits there...

Can/should the blogosphere replace the journal-sphere in statistics? I dunno. At times I've been able to publish effective statistical reactions in blog form... or to use the blog as a sort of mini-journal to collect different viewpoints... And when it comes to pure ridicule... maybe blogging is actually more appropriate than formally writing a letter to the editor of a journal.

But I don't know if blogs are the best place for technical discussions. This is true in economics as much as in statistics, but the difference is that many people have argued (perhaps correctly) that econ is already too technical, hence the prominence of blog-based arguments is maybe a move in the right direction...

Statistics, though, is different... even the applied stuff that I do is pretty technical--algebra, calculus, differential equations, infinite series, and the like... Can this sort of highly-technical material be blogged? Maybe so. Igor Carron does it, and so does Cosma Shalizi--and both of them, in their technical discussions, clearly link the statistical material to larger conceptual questions in scientific inference and applied questions about the world. But this sort of blogging is really hard--much harder, I think, than whatever it takes for an economics professor with time on his or her hands to regularly churn out readable and informative blogs at varying lengths commenting on current events, economic policy, the theories of micro- and macro-economics, and all the rest...

On the other hand, the current system of scientific journals is, in many ways, a complete joke. The demand for referee reports of submitted articles is out of control, and I don't see Arxiv as a solution, as it has its own cultural biases. I agree with Sethi that some sort of online system has to be better, but I'm guessing that blogs will play more of a facilitating informal discussions rather than replacing the repositories of formal research. I could well be wrong here, though: all I have are my own experiences, I don't have any good general way of thinking about this sort of sociology-of-science issue.
One minor point of clarification: I did not say (or mean to imply) that blogs would replace journals as the primary repositories of academic research. My point was simply that blogs are fast becoming an integral part of the research infrastructure and that, looking ahead, many innovative ideas will find initial expression in this format before being subject to further development along more traditional lines.


  1. I'm also waiting for that day to come, where blog is the main source of research and sharing economics knowledge.

  2. Rajiv:

    If Kartik Athreya is guilty of anything as far as his blast at econ bloggers is concerned, it may have been his lack of focus. But he does make a good point, which is that well thought out economic enquiry cannot be adjudicated in the typical short-term mark-to-market horizon in which most investors seem to be operating in.

    This is particularly true when feedback mechanisms between the blogosphere and markets exist wherein if the "narrative" being espoused becomes dominant enough, it becomes powerful enough to impact the actual evolution of economy. Of course this begs the question as to how and why economic 'art' affects reality which in itself could be a fruitful area of enquiry? Everybody is looking for the "elephant" trade (John Paulson did everyone a huge disservice by bagging one, but these don't come around too often) in our winner-take-all society.

    The problem with with many blogs, as I see it, is the lack of a formal process of argumentation, and I mean that in the strict sense of the word. I don't have a problem with economic bloggers going toe-to-toe with folks with Ph.Ds in the area, but they must be held to at least some standard of debate, logic, and internal consistency. In my experience, many fail this test. More importantly, the readership that trades these markets has an equally short attention span to actually parse through something and decide quickly whether it meets these standards.

    In my opinion, Kartik is right to raise the issue, but I wish he had made his case differently. It is not so much the lack of training in formal economics, but the lack of a rigorous process of reasoning from axiom to conclusion where most bloggers in the economics space fall down. More needs to be done here to improve the discourse and no serious blogger worth their salt should take objection to.

  3. And what, HookahBoy, would you suggest be done to improve the discourse?

    Frankly, I find the writings of prominent economics bloggers far superior to what I typically receive or write in a peer review. Obviously some of the stuff out there is nuts, but then that is quickly made very clear by others. Or the crazy stuff is ignored.

    I find Kartik Athreya tragically sophomoric, a lot like the graduate student who learns the math tricks but then finds him/herself incapable of asking an interesting question, or selecting an appropriate model to use once the question is posed. The key to this business is connecting the modeling abstractions to plain English, which is what the best bloggers do. If high-quality blogging (indeed, *any* writing) looks easy, it's only because they do it very well.

  4. The thing is HookahBoy, it's the economists themselves that seem to lack formal scientific processes to falsify their theories.

    Look at the pure orthodoxy in terms of austerity on display by financial ministers. There is not a case anywhere that it has proved successful yet.

  5. Hookahboy, you wrote:

    "I don't have a problem with economic bloggers going toe-to-toe with folks with Ph.Ds in the area, but they must be held to at least some standard of debate, logic, and internal consistency. In my experience, many fail this test."

    All bloggers are held to whatever standards their readers (including those with PhDs in the area) impose on them. These standards are often higher than those imposed by professional economists on each other. Those who fail the test do so because their arguments are dissected and refuted by other bloggers. The reaction to Athreya's essay is a case in point: he now surely realizes that the community of bloggers actually demands much higher standards of reasoning than he was able to provide.

  6. Dear Hookahboy,
    “but the lack of a rigorous process of reasoning from axiom to conclusion where most bloggers in the economics space fall down”

    So where’s the problem? Such presentations will get ignored!

    “as I see it, is the lack of a formal process of argumentation, and I mean that in the strict sense of the word. I don't have a problem with economic bloggers going toe-to-toe with folks with Ph.Ds in the area, but they must be held to at least some standard of debate, logic, and internal consistency.”

    That’s like arguing that nobody without a degree in Business, who cannot, or would not care to, write a business plan to the ‘standards’ & template prescribed by an HBR or some Association of Venture Capital Entities, should be allowed to start a business – for it will fail ! Really!? Then what’s the problem you have – let it fail buddy ! Then Bill Gates & Larry Ellisson, and Ambani and would never happen, period.

    But you know that Business, Economics, Philosophy and Morality are far more inherent-Meritworthy to be kept hostage to ‘Bureaucratics’ (ability or inclination to adhere to prescribed structure/”formal process of argumentation”) – academic-prescribed/consensused or otherwise, when we don’t have to anymore. Bureaucracy (=structure, rules, process, prescribed argumentation guidelines) is something that helps propagation, and maintenance, of an idea and/or organization, but the conceptualization/genesis of it needs no Bureaucracy. Religions have structures and procedures to them, though always evolving to suit the changing times, that enable them to survive for millennia – but the very Prophets around which they spring are not bound by any structure: some have had the academic structure, formal process of argumentation you are talking about, others did not – it’s not important.

    Remember, getting published on Blogosphere is not like getting awarded a Nobel citation and money. If you do not find a blogpost or comment upto your standards of “debate, logic, and internal consistency” then ignore it – IF your judgment is good, most others (including Rajiv) will ignore it too!

    Let not Structure, Formal language, and Committe-approval become the refuge of the qualified-mediocre.

  7. There were several follow-ups to my post regarding Kartik's essay on the blogosphere, and I would like to respond to at least some of them. Before I begin though, let me at post a Wikipedia link on Argumentation Theory (since I did use it in a strict sense).


    Hopefully, this will shed more light on where I was going with this.

    My responses are:

    (1) Michael J Roberts: Please read the link referenced above. The problem is not so much that the quality of economic blogging is uniformly bad, but the ratio of good to bad is not one to write home about. I agree with your critique of formalism in economic models (which is why I always liked the UK Cambridge versus the US Cambridge branch of economics).

    (2) MN: Falsification is a whole branch unto itself and is particularly tricky in a social science like economics. I will not go there but it is one of the elements that go into poor blogging since assertions that may be logically inconsistent cannot necessarily always be proven false within a realistic time frame of debate. I do however sympathize with your critique of the "Austerians" in this regard.

    (3) Ohm said:

    "So where’s the problem? Such presentations will get ignored!"

    Hah! The Rational Expectations Approach applied to the market place of ideas. Have you seen public opinion polls regarding how many of our fellow citizens still believe that Saddam Hussein (a) was involved in 9/11 or (b) that he had nuclear weapons?

    Unfortunately, to use an economics metaphor, Gresham's law does not seem to apply to the marketplace of ideas. I speak from experience and I assure you, a large part of the normal day's chatter consists of rumors picked up from various blogs that ping their way across trading desks. This problem becomes especially acute during an period of heightened volatility since there is no way to either prove or disprove an assertion, other than waiting it out. For most investors that trade in fast-moving markets and mark-to-market, that is a luxury that is ill afforded.

    Ohm, I am not making the case that there should be a standards board for bloggers. But standards of debate and reasoning have been discussed for thousands or years of human history and we don't need to re-invent the wheel here.

    (4) Rajiv, I'm sorry but "whatever standards their readers impose on them" is simply too sweeping if one is interested in getting something productive out of the debate. Ultimately, I assume bloggers blog because they have a point of view and are interested in persuading others that their point of view is deserving of consideration.

    As far as using the rebuttal to Kartik's essay as an example of the vetting process, I am afraid it fails the test too. For example, how many of the commentariat have conflated Kartik's personal polemic with the Fed's, the most prominent being the estemeed Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Daily Telegraph.

    See http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/ambroseevans-pritchard/100006729/time-to-shut-down-the-us-federal-reserve/

  8. "And blogs will come to play a central role in the process of recruitment, promotion and reward at major research universities. This genie is not going back into its bottle." .... Posted by Rajiv at 6/29/2010 10:09:00 AM

    Amen to that, Rajiv, and that is revolutionary evolution at play with virtual forces which are intangible and impossible to stop and control for they are Intelligent Memes into Instant Messaging in the Strangest of Places and Power Spaces.

    "The genie is out of the bottle and the bottle is broken and he aint going back, and that dictates that an altogether completely different mode of controlling action be employed, for is there not a growing popular global unrest which can very easily and extremely quickly, with the speed and ease of global communication today, turn into revolution before tomorrow morning, with the mob knowing exactly who they are looking for, and who has been responsible for their dire straits plight." ..... Posted on 6/29/2010 10:14:30 AM ..... http://thedailybell.com/1172/Congress-Declares-War-on-Iran.html

  9. Hookahboy, Of course there are errors propagated on blogs, just as there are refutations of errors. The question is whether, on balance, this process serves to advance rather than retard the discipline, relative to the baseline where all debate is left to credentialed experts.

    And what would you propose instead, to secure the "formal process of argumentation" that blogs (in your view) lack? Some sort of certification system perhaps? Barriers to entry? And who would adjudicate such matters?

  10. Rajiv, the fact that Athreya and you (and me) are Indians would otherwise be a trivial issue when it comes to discussing economics and blogs. But I cannot but notice that Athreya's arrogant attempt to dismiss almost everyone who writes on economics outside peer-reviewed journals reeks of a Brahmanical attitude to knowledge. We fully well know what harm that did to our country over many centuries. Just substitute Brahmins with Ph.D. economists and Sanskrit with Maths, and you get the same old conclusion: only a select few should have the right to enter intellectual discourse. And the result will be the same: a intellectual cesspool where new insights are crowded out by theological debate. Niranjan

  11. The REAL complaint Athreya is making (no doubt he was egged on by the Fed hierarchy) disguised by the red herring of academic rigor, is similar to Lara Logan's complaint with Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone. It's really quite bothersome when people have alternative views and start listening to the "riffraff" isn't it???

    I think what really bothers them is NYT and others sit by and idly watch as Bernanke throws billions in QE to corrupt bankers in Europe, while the bloggers remind us of that now "open secret" (thanks to bloggers) on an almost daily basis.