Intellectual boxing matches


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I moderated a discussion list on macroeconomic history back in the late 1990s. I volunteered because I thought it would be fun and I’d learn something.  And I did, until a few members started flaming each other, encouraging more participants to join in, and ruined the entire enterprise for me.  It seemed to me then, and now, that participants enjoyed engaging in a food fight and thought it an important part of the enterprise, sort of like a fraternity hazing.

I found myself in a similar situation while giving a job talk to the Economics faculty at a research university in 1990. I was used to teaching, i.e. helping students understand difficult and/or complex and/or new concepts.  During my talk I asked, after going through a mathematical derivation, “is that clear?”  Immediately two faculty members started laughing and another said, “don’t worry, we’ll let you know if we don’t follow you.”  It only got worse as one, then another, then another potential colleague started asking about simple arithmetic, supply and demand concepts, etc. By the time it was over I’d been mocked and embarrassed for over an hour.  I thought it was awful, immature behavior, but the department chair told me afterwards, “this is the way things are in academia,” as if I hadn’t just spent the past 6 1/2 years in graduate school.

Fortunately, by this time I knew I didn’t want a job at a research university. I’d seen enough presentations at Berkeley to know that they were as much about the audience members showing how smart they were (especially by tearing down the speaker) as learning anything about the subject. I’d been asked multiple times, “why don’t you say more during the workshop?” and my answer was always the same: because I was listening and trying to understand what was going on rather than preening.

I mention all of this because there is a kerfuffle over a paper submitted to the American Economic Review (AER).  Recent blog posts by Geroge Borjas and Noah Smith will give you an overview and a feeling for the tone, but the discussion has quickly turned from the ethics of peer review to personal attacks and nastiness.  For example, Borjas writes,

“I personally find the forum refreshing. There’s still hope for mankind when many of the posts written by a bunch of over-educated young social scientists illustrate a throwing off of the shackles of political correctness and reflect mundane concerns that more normal human beings share: prestige, sex, money, landing a job, sex, professional misconduct, gossip, sex, and putting down “reg monkeys,” a subspecies of economists that cares little about conceptual issues and lives simply to run regressions.)”

Refreshing is one way to put it, I guess.  But why do we need this?  To me, it just creates a profession that encourages nastiness and petty feuding instead of tackling important work.

All of this reminds me that I’m glad I made the choices that I did 26 years ago. And, it reminds me why, when a student tells me they want to go to graduate school in economics, I tell some of these stories so that they don’t go into the situation blindly.  If you thought you liked economics as an undergraduate, you may not find it as congenial in grad school.

Boxing, according to Frank Deford, was one of the three major sports (along with baseball and college football) when he started writing professionally in the early 1960s.  Now, boxing is dying and has long been passed by (the equally brutal sport of) professional football and both college and professional basketball, and perhaps even professional hockey.  My hope is that this style of intellectual inquiry goes the way of boxing over the next 50 years.