Another reason I’m glad I’m not an economist

Robin Hanson writes,

In academia, one often finds folks who are much more (or less) smart and insightful than their colleagues, where most who know them agree with this assessment. Since academia is primarily an institution for credentialling folks as intellectually impressive, so that others can affiliate with them, one might wonder how such mis-rankings can persist.

I added the bold font myself for emphasis. Granted, Robin is far from a typical economist. Nonetheless, that he would write such an extreme statement without even feeling the need to justify it (and, no, I don’t think it’s true, at least not in the “academia” that I know about) . . . that I see as a product of being in an economics department.

P.S. Robin definitely is correct about the “more (or less) smart and insightful” bit. But here I think there are two things going on. First, in any group of people you’ll see some variation, especially given that there are other factors going on than “smart and insightful” when it comes to selecting people in an academic environment. Second, there’s more to life–even to academic life–than being smart and insightful. Even setting aside teaching, advising, administration, etc., some other crucial qualities for academic research include working hard, having the “taste” to work on important problems, intellectual honesty, and caring enough about getting the right answer. I know some very smart and insightful people who have not made the contributions that they are capable of, because (I think) of gaps in some of these other important traits.

25 thoughts on “Another reason I’m glad I’m not an economist

  1. A cynical take on college –

    Perhaps 25 years ago I went to a talk Milton Friedman gave to an alumni event for Chicago graduates. He said that college was primarily a place where people of similar socioeconomic status could find mates, since people no longer tended to get married right out of high school…

  2. If academia is primarily an intellectual ranking game, that's because the pay is low. I thought that was the riff.

  3. I'm also suspicious of people's ability to rank the intelligence and insight of one another. Quickness in giving time and quality of presentation probably are the major factors in what makes a person seem intelligent, but while these are no doubt somewhat correlated with intelligence, the right social skills and otherwise moderate intellectual gifts can fake this, while lack of the relevant social skills can do a pretty good job of concealing other intellectual talents.

    Admittedly, one might claim that in the long term it's harder to be misled. Even in the long term, though, I don't know how true that is; people are very reluctant to change their initial evaluations of others, and in general are very good at interpreting evidence to support whatever theory they started with.

  4. Robin: Yes, please expand. One issue, I suppose, is that the credentialing for grad students is much different than the credentialing for undergrads; maybe I was thinking more of the former while you were thinking of the latter. (We have very few undergrad statistics majors at Columbia, and I don't interact much with the undergraduate poli sci majors. But I spend lots of time with grad students and postdocs.)

  5. I'm surprised you see his statement as extreme. Now, I could imagine a cynical interpretation, that would make it extreme in some eyes, but it also seems possible to interpret as an almost banal statement. Why do students go to university? On a non-cynical view, to learn. Why do they think they'll learn there? Because they think the faculty are intellectually impressive.

  6. Radford: I would go with the commonsensical view that academia is primarily an institution for teaching and research. I think of the credentialing as a byproduct.

  7. Misrankings persist due to error in the model. The academic system is awash in error.

    In addition, there's the issue of "getting it done". What if Wallace had never written Darwin, and Darwin had never gotten around to publishing? Who'd remember him now?

    Even if you "get it done", you don't necessarily get good press. Mendel had to be pretty smart, I'd guess, but he was ignored and his work needed to be rediscovered. What should Mendel have done differently, I wonder? Did the other monks think he was a cut above intellectually, or just an eccentric? Would Mendel get tenure?

    Earlier in the week, there were posts here about "Benford's Law". But Benford didn't discover it or publish first. He just gets the credit.

    There's a lot of noise in the system.

  8. Perhaps I see the sentence as less controversial than you, and I'm certainly not equipped to judge what Robin means, but his emphasis on credentialling seems to imply the idea of an institution (in the economic sense, probably NIE) which certifies people as meeting some minnimum criteria. You could call it a club: success is academia requires one to be "intellectually impressive" in some fashion. It would be a necessary (though not sufficient) condition. The use of the word "primarily" implies that being "intellectually impressive" (though I have no idea what that actually means – does it mean quick to grasp an idea, good at arguing, capable of sustained work on a research programme, etc?) is the most important of several criteria.

    So I don't see any dissonance between what you quoted from Robin and what you said in disagreement; i.e. as far as I can see, Robin said nothing which stands against your disagreements.

    Robin's claim seems, to me, to be that he is aurprised that academic success does not indicate "intellectual impressiveness." This, to me, indicates some dissonance between how Robin conceives the academic institution should be functioning and how it is functioning. Which further indicates that either he's right about how academia should function and thus the system is broken, or he's wrong about how academia should function.

    Now that I'm reading his post, he seems to be saying that there are multiple signalling levels that denote authority in academia. The top journals, which should indicate quality, do not necessarily do so. I'm not sure if he sees this as a flaw; but his point is that people outside the system must rely on one what could call "poor signals" – in this case, averages (brands). e.g. without further information, a paper published in a top journal would be expected to be higher quality than one published in a second or third tier journal.

    In which case, there is an incentive for people inside the system – who know that people outside the system rely exclusively on these average indicators – to exploit them. In other words, there's an information asymmetry, and a means for academics to exploit it. The upshot being that this information asymmetry & incentive system causes the system to be distorted – that the institution of academia does NOT, in fact, measure "intellectual impressiveness" well (at the very least; there may be other reasons as well) because people try and manipulate the system.

    In retropect – and assuming this was his point – he really didn't explain it well. He could have said that "an information asymmetry in the signalling mechanism for quality academic work allows people incentivized to misrepresent the quality of their work outside of the academic system to do so" or somesuch nonsense, hopefully better phrased.

    The assumption [insight?] that some people may care more about what the public thinks about them than what their peers think about them, which creates the incentive to manipulate the system (which the information asymmetry enables), is of course something than can be challenged; Robin acknowledges this, as his last paragraph is a throw-away dismissal of any such challenge (the anecdote, i.e. I've never experienced anything to the contrary…)

    Now, if Robin could be persuaded to explain more in a future blog post, we'll see how wrong I am…

  9. Andrew,

    It depends on what you mean by a statement about what "an institution is for". Certainly, teaching and research is a lot of what faculty at a university do. But many of them would be doing that even if universities as an institution did not exist. (Maybe not as much, but certainly some.) So what is the institution for?

    Personally, I think universities have two primary purposes: (a) provide a socially acceptable way for people to spend four years doing things without any immediate economic payoff, (b) provide an environment in which some of them use this time to learn. But there are actually many purposes for universities, as for lots of other institutions, as is probably essential for them to have managed to exist for nearly a thousand years.

  10. RE: the title of this post.

    Few economists would state this argument this strongly. Personally, I think there is plenty of room for teaching, research, signaling, and affiliation.

  11. Radford: Sure, there are many purposes. But now you're getting away from Robin's original claim, which is that "academia primarily an institution for credentialling . . .". I can only assume that the "primarily" means that, in his opinion, the credentialling is more important than the education and research.

  12. That Prof. Gelman would draw general conclusions about economists from a cherry-picked Robin Hanson quote suggests that "extreme statements" are not confined to economics departments.

  13. EZ: Touche. But I do think something can be learned even from a sample of size 1: note what I wrote above:

    "Granted, Robin is far from a typical economist. Nonetheless, that he would write such an extreme statement without even feeling the need to justify it (and, no, I don't think it's true, at least not in the "academia" that I know about) . . . that I see as a product of being in an economics department."

    Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "cherry-picked." I was reading Robin's blog and noticed that statement of his.

  14. Andrew,

    Sure, lots of teaching and research happens at universities. But it's nevertheless quite possible that what the institution adds is primarily certification – of the students, to possible employers, and of the faculty, to possible students. Without the universities (or similar institutions), teaching and research would still happen, but maybe not any certification (depending on how broadly you define "similar institution" and "certification").

  15. I certainly did not mean to claim that being smart and insightful are the only impressive qualities that determine success in academia. But I do mean to seriously argue that the main product academia sells is not learning or intellectual progress but affiliating with impressive folks. Which of these two claims is the one you are taking issue with?

  16. Robin: Two weeks is an eternity in blogtime. I'd already forgotten what this post was about. So I scrolled up and re-read it. . . .

    There were two things I was saying. First, that one should expect to see variation in the smartness and insightfulness of people whom you'll see in academia. There's enough natural variation in these quantities that I wouldn't say that "one might wonder how such mis-rankings can persist." I don't really see this variation as immediate evidence of mis-ranking.

    Second, I was disagreeing with the claim that "academia is primarily an institution for credentialling folks as intellectually impressive"–or, at least, I was disagreeing with the idea that the claim was so unexceptionable to be placed inside a clause in a sentence without justification. As I commented earlier, I would go with the commonsensical (to me) view that academia is primarily an institution for teaching and research. I think of the credentialing as a byproduct.

  17. Yeah bloggers can be emphemeral; you and I can rise above that right? :)

    Of course academics primarily do teaching and research; the question is why they do teaching and research. Why do students prefer to be taught by teachers who mostly ignore them to do research, and why do research patrons pay them to do that research? That is where I claim it helps to think of academia as functioning to let others affiliate with credentialed-as-impressive researchers. Do you disagree with this?

  18. Robin: Maybe I could agree with you, if I can say that the goal is education and research, and that association with intellectually impressive people is a means to that end. I went to MIT because I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that if I went to a place full of nerds, I'd do my homework and learn some stuff. I was miserable there, but I did do my homework. I went to Harvard for grad school so I could work with the intellectually impressive Don Rubin. And I chose my jobs, to a large extent, because they put me in contact with some intellectually impressive people. (Of course now I spend lots of time blogging and writing books, not enough time hanging out with the intellectually impressive people, but that's another problem.) But at no point was my goal to be credentialed as intellectually impressive.

    So I think maybe you should stick with the idea of academia being a place that clusters people with certain intellectual interests or abilities, without being so stuck on the credentialing idea.

    I agree that creditialing is important, I just see it as a byproduct, not the goal or purpose of the institution.

  19. I'm not talking about your conscious motivations in choosing your career. I'm talking about why the career exists as an option. What do the customers who are paying your salary get from you?

  20. "given that there are other factors going on than "smart and insightful" when it comes to selecting people in an academic environment."

    Very true. It's about publication, and much of publication doesn't take great intelligence, just good intelligence and really hard work so you get to the frontier and a little over a little faster than the competition. And starting early is huge. If you're a super-workaholic, with great endurance and energy, since kindergarten you're going to achieve far more by age 40, and be in a far more prestigious department, than someone who only starts working super hard on academics at age 28.

    And credentials lead to credentials; working your ass off since kindergarten and getting into Harvard as an undergrad makes it much more likely that you get into an Ivy PhD program, and with the resources, help, and prestige you get there, much more likely that you get a job in an Ivy department, and with the resources, help and prestige you get there,…

  21. Richard:

    I've been working hard since I started college, that's for sure. But before then, no, I didn't work hard. In the U.S. system (at least as it existed when I was a kid), it was perfectly possible to coast up to the age of 17 as long as you had the right background and abilities.

    Your point about getting to the frontier is a good one, though. It doesn't matter how hard you work or how able you are, if you're not well situated you're extremely unlikely to make any useful contribution.

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