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I just flew in from the econ seminar, and boy are my arms tired

I’ve heard all sorts of scare stories of what it’s like to speak in an academic economics seminar: they’re rude, they interrupt constantly, they don’t let you get through three slides in an hour, etc. But whenever I’ve actually spoke in an economics department, the people have been polite and well-behaved, really it’s been like any other seminar.

I mentioned this to some people awhile ago and they said that the nasty-economist thing only happens in the top departments. I’d spoken at Columbia (which, if not at the very top, is still respectable), but that was in the political economy seminar and I’m a political scientist, so maybe they were nice to me because I’m local. And the other econ departments where I’d spoken were in Europe (maybe they’re nicer there) or at non-elite institutions in the U.S. So I called my friend at Harvard econ, told him my story, and asked if I could speak there. He duly booked me for the Harvard-MIT econometrics seminar.

I spoke at the seminar, and . . . it was just fine. In their questions they were a bit more persistent than the usual stat or poli sci audiences, but the were polite, they laughed at my jokes, and they did not hassle me at all, nor did they try to stop me from presenting my material.

In a way this was a letdown, but overall I found the experience surprisingly pleasant.

So here’s my new hypothesis: economists at top U.S. universities are really mean to seminar speakers—unless you speak in the political economy or econometrics seminars.

16 Comments

  1. none@gmail.com says:

    You are Andrew Gelman and you know what you’re talking about when you present your research. If they suspected you didn’t know your stuff or you said something they think is flatly wrong, then that would be a different story. Sorry, but you don’t prove the case. I’ve been in seminars when things are not pretty. I have been in one seminar (Chicago) in which the speaker couldn’t pass the first two slides. They were beyond rude. They just need to smell blood. My conclusion is that they are truly rude and mean when they don’t like the speaker or the research method. This is a generalization of course.

    • C Ryan King says:

      At Chicago I was truly delighted to see people dispute the talk title. The other variable is that you understand both your content and method. Lots of methods / theory talks will present motivating data which the speaker is not really an expert on and get hammered on all the ways in which this analysis makes no sense for this context. Content area experts do a bit better by using bog-standard analysis and politely nodding about how they would love to have a postdoc who is an expert in whatever fancy technique. Of course some have both happen when they use a sophisticated identification strategy which isn’t very plausible / understandable to content area experts and simultaneously simplistic in respects that aren’t interesting to the presenter.

  2. Peter says:

    What sort of comments/questions did they have? Any questions you don’t typically receive, or was insightful or helpful?

  3. Peter says:

    And thanks for posting your slides.

  4. nobody says:

    As Taleb have said, most (all?) economists are crooks (paraphrase). They are too anxious to project that to others.

  5. LemmusLemmus says:

    “I’ve heard all sorts of scare stories of what it’s like to speak in an academic economics seminar: they’re rude, they interrupt constantly, they don’t let you get through three slides in an hour, etc.”

    This reminds me of all the scare stories that students tell each other about oral examinations. Whenever I’ve actually been in one, the professors were very fair and polite.

    I should perhaps add that I was usually well prepared. And of course there’s a tiny bit of a selection effect regarding which stories get told and retold.

  6. TT says:

    I like your new hypothesis, which casts the econ subfield as a moderator for audience meanness.

    From the 20 or so seminars I’ve attended, the ones with the most interruptions tend to be micro theory seminars (followed by econ history, macro theory and finally, econometrics). I didn’t think the interruptions were rude, however. Perhaps it’s because I like the professors but I found it amusing how they were always trying to guess what comes next in the slides in terms of what proofs to use, what the propositions would be, etc. For me, it shows an engagement in the material but of course, this could be idiosyncratic to my experience. I sometimes wish political science seminars were more like that, as long as I’m in the audience and not the speaker.

  7. Alisia Tasso says:

    I agree with none@gmail. Pretty sure it is a “do they smell blood or do they not” kind of thing.

  8. Economist says:

    I have had a few shockers where I couldn’t get through slides without interruption. Usually most of the questions start “but what about..?” and the answer is “that is on the next slide and in the paper”. Not at top institutions but at places like international agencies and central banks. It is not about smelling blood. It is about wanting to smell blood and not finding any.

  9. Antonio says:

    They didn’t tell you to you use fixed effects, instrumental variables, some hypothesis tests and, of course, tables? The didn’t tell you that your estimates were biased and to prove otherwise with some baby/boring math? They didn’t try to kill you when you mention “hierarchical models” ? Are you sure you went to econ seminar?

  10. MAYO says:

    It’s hard to describe, and I certainly don’t wish to generalize, but criticisms voiced by econ faculty toward other econ faculty (not toward philosophers), if voiced, have a tendency sometimes toward the whiney, almost childishly-over-the-top. (I was 50% in an Econ dept. for 4 years.) I’ve been unable to put my finger on it exactly…but it’s a little embarassing sometimes for audience members I think….

  11. Charles says:

    Another hypothesis is that they’re more polite to outsiders? (Don’t know if this is plausible, I know nothing about econ culture.)

    • MAYO says:

      Yes, that might be it–though it likely depends on the field.

    • DCASE says:

      Yes. I think we are nicer to outsiders. Recently, we had a sociologist give a a very bad paper in our seminar. The room was largely quiet with only a few clarifying questions asked. By contrast, the previous week’s speaker was pushed into an angry defense of his paper during the introductory slides. Of course, that is mitigated somewhat by the seniority/eminence of the speaker.

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  13. wjohnson says:

    As someone who has been going to (and giving) economics seminars for decades, I can confirm that outsiders are often treated differently. In particular, if the audience recognizes that the speaker will not benefit from the constructive criticism they might offer, the audience essentially gives up and patiently sits through the presentation, wishing they were elsewhere undoubtedly. Not getting criticized is not necessarily a good sign.
    I have a sense that economists are more interested in helping the speaker improve his research than non-economists are. True, economists tend to be blunter and so this might be perceived as aggressive behavior by outsiders but in most cases it is motivated by the desire to improve the research. This is consistent with two other peculiarities of economists — the strong interest in the quality of colleagues (since good colleagues will improve one’s own research), and the famously lengthy and intense refereeing process for journal publication. When I go to a seminar or presentation outside economics I am amazed by the contrast. Often there will be no real attempt to engage the speaker’s ideas. Questions are often rhetorical by which I mean not questions at all but an excuse for a lengthy speech about the questioner’s own views or research. I could never see that these types of seminars were of much value to the speaker.