Economists Behaving Badly
January 25, 2022 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Economists Behaving Badly. A senior economist at Stanford submits a paper to the Journal of Political Economy. It gets rejected. The story doesn't end there. Featuring: the University of Chicago free speech policy, "I do not negotiate with terrorists," uncertainty quantification. Via Andrew Gelman's blog.
posted by escabeche (41 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
So can anybody in academia tell me whether "accept this paper because otherwise my student will have a hard time getting a job" is normal?

If it isn't, is this as bad as the Wansink situation, where the person proudly revealing what they're doing has no idea how negatively it will be viewed?
posted by clawsoon at 7:43 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


So can anybody in academia tell me whether "accept this paper because otherwise my student will have a hard time getting a job" is normal?

I've never seen it, but let's day some people certainly have different ideas about what is acceptable behaviour from them as authors, reviewers, editors etc.
posted by biffa at 8:06 AM on January 25


I've never seen it, but I believe it happens because economics is a cabal. There was a time (don't know if this is still true) when econ faculty would decide which grad schools their undergrad majors were allowed to apply to. Academia is top-down and clubby in all fields, but economics really takes it to the next level.
posted by medusa at 8:12 AM on January 25 [16 favorites]


According to his wikipedia page this Judd guy is most famous for a paper where he declared that the optimal capital gains tax rate is zero so the whole "guy trying to prove at length that his neighbor is violating HOA bylaws on appropriate hedge height" vibe of his blog makes a lot more sense all of a sudden
posted by theodolite at 8:23 AM on January 25 [26 favorites]


Sounds like the Stanford economist is the asshole. The publication is NOT a public forum. Freedom of Speech does not apply They can chose to publish anything they want that abides by their known standards. Talk shit and disparage the publication or people involved and they are perfectly within their rights to not publish the attack.
posted by Oh_Bobloblaw at 8:45 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


To explain the title "An example of the "Tyranny of the top five"": The JPE (Journal of Political Economy) is one of the top five econ journals. But "top five" is not just a matter of degree. As this summary of an article explains, "A single publication in one of the big five ... is sometimes the difference between getting tenure and restarting a career elsewhere." The title of the article? "Publishing and Promotion in Economics: The Tyranny of the Top Five." One of the two coauthors? Jim Heckman.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:47 AM on January 25 [6 favorites]


Why can't he just pull himself up by his bootstraps and start his own journal?
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:56 AM on January 25 [31 favorites]


Academic here! Dude's a complete (technical term) whack-job. I pity his students.
posted by Galvanic at 8:56 AM on January 25 [13 favorites]


I dare them to find a noneconomist who will declare publicly that the actions of UC and JPE are consistent with the standards of science.
Sounds pretty consistent with the standards of science publishing. Rather generous on the part of the editor, actually. I don't have a dog in this fight. (I don't even really understand the fight.) But, writing unhinged letters about free speech to the provost of a school that has an association with a journal because you disagree with an editor sure doesn't inspire a desire to learn more.
posted by eotvos at 8:57 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


Why can't he just pull himself up by his bootstraps and start his own journal?

That's what Hoover would've wanted.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:58 AM on January 25


he publication is NOT a public forum. Freedom of Speech does not apply They can chose to publish anything they want that abides by their known standards. Talk shit and disparage the publication or people involved and they are perfectly within their rights to not publish the attack.

The threat appears to be that if there was criticism anywhere, they wouldn't publish the paper. They were obviously not going to publish the attack in there own journal. So that was never the issue.

And while something like, say, a magazine publishing literary fiction not publishing something because the author was nasty to the editors would be a unremarkable, in the scholarly setting you have other goals kind of baked in. Not going so far as to say Judd is right, but it is less than ideal. In theory, anyway.

But then after it's published they say, sure, criticize all you want, even publish our letters.
posted by mark k at 9:00 AM on January 25


The threat appears to be that if there was criticism anywhere, they wouldn't publish the paper. They were obviously not going to publish the attack in there own journal. So that was never the issue.


The initial request was "hey, I'm looking a paper that my fellow editor turned down. She's not going to be happy about that, and so could you hold your public criticisms so as not to make the situation worse?" Judd wildly overreacted to that and the whole thing spiraled.
posted by Galvanic at 9:04 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]


Economists Behaving Badly

But the title repeats itself.

I have yet to read about a kerfuffle between economists that doesn't end up being a tempest that a teapot would be far too large to hold. It's the "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" of Sciences, where the theorems are made up and the points wouldn't matter, except then you have people who believe in it strongly and have the power to fuck up the lives of millions or bilions.
posted by mephron at 10:25 AM on January 25 [8 favorites]


From "an 'expert' in the economics publishing process," a longer version of what Galvanic said.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:26 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Judd wildly overreacted to that and the whole thing spiraled.

That's how I parsed it too - Judd was asked for some space and restraint as a professional courtesy so that some quiet backroom diplomacy could take place and he immediately ignored the political question and did the exact opposite of what was being asked of him because He Was Right, making it impossible for this person to help him. Which is... certainly on-brand for both university economists and economics as a field, gotta say.

I'm reminded of the line that university politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small, but maybe it's not that? Maybe university politics are vicious because enough of the people involved are actually terrible at it.
posted by mhoye at 10:28 AM on January 25 [22 favorites]


Maybe university politics are vicious because enough of the people involved are actually terrible at it

Agreed -- add into this the fact that most of your intellectual interactions are with 18-22 year olds, who you almost always know more than, and academics get a grossly inflated sense of their own worth, deftness, and intelligence.*

*And I say this as an academic myself.
**the courtroom lawyers I know love have academics as opposing witnesses because they are remarkably easy to dismantle. They say too much and think that they're vastly smarter than anyone else in the room.
posted by Galvanic at 10:53 AM on January 25 [12 favorites]


This seems to reinforce my long held suspicion that economics is sophistry dressed up with math and presented as science.
posted by interogative mood at 11:02 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Andrew Gelman has a well-honed crap-detector. He skewered the Santa Clara county covid base-line infection rate study put out by John Ioannidis (another Stanford professor) early in 2020.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:07 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


interogative mood: This seems to reinforce my long held suspicion that economics is sophistry dressed up with math and presented as science.

Aeon has a pretty good recent essay on that topic with respect to minimum wage which I think hasn't shown up on Metafilter yet.
posted by clawsoon at 11:14 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I'm a historian, and one of the things that strikes me is that, throughout history, the vast majority of the knowledge that people think is true (and not the fringe stuff but the basic stuff) are actually completely wrong.* My pet example is nutritional information -- just about everything I learned growing up about nutrition is now seen to be completely false. That seems applicable just as much to the present as it does to the past, and it seems quite applicable even to scholarly and scientific knowledge.** Of course, if I turn this analysis onto my own knowledge, it might well mean that I'm wrong about this.

*this is a variation of Sturgeon's Law, I think.
** though this is difficult to have a reasoned conversation about at the moment because of the horrifying anti-intellectual behavior of Trump et al during the pandemic.
posted by Galvanic at 11:59 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


whether "accept this paper because otherwise my student will have a hard time getting a job" is normal?

Absolutely not; I have a role where I see all editorial communications for one of my subfields' main journals (for the last couple years or so) and I've absolutely never seen anything remotely resembling the email exchanges reported in Gelman's post. (I kind of suspect it isn't really normal even for economics, but I'll have to inquire of some friends of mine.)
posted by advil at 12:04 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


I really appreciate ELife's (among others) policy of publishing the communiques of peer review for each article. It's been mind-blowing for me.

There's so much politics and politicking involved in publication, and behaviors ... vary. All over the place. It can be really difficult to learn what's normal, or expected, as you're starting out in any field. It can be really difficult to mentor, too -- my students are limited to my own experiences (and scars). Some really egregious behavior goes unpunished, gets rewarded, and biases run absolutely rampant. Comparisons of gender distributions in publications vs. distributions in grad student and faculty populations tell a big story.

The best cure is sunlight.
posted by Dashy at 12:49 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


I see all editorial communications for one of my subfields' main journals

Do you, though? Here, the evidence shows that Judd wrote straight to Heckman directly. There's a lot of backchannel communication that isn't part of the editorial record. That's where the real politicking happens -- if you have access to it.
posted by Dashy at 12:52 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


he immediately ignored the political question and did the exact opposite of what was being asked of him because He Was Right, making it impossible for this person to help him.

Well if I know one thing about economics it's to assume everyone is a rational actor maximizing their own utility. /s
posted by ctmf at 12:55 PM on January 25 [18 favorites]


Well if I know one thing about economics

See, THIS is the kind of thing I mean when I say that snark is a part of mefi culture that I actually like!
posted by Ipsifendus at 1:23 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


What's most alarming to me about all this is not how badly it reflects on the individuals or discipline, but the actual output of this process. Unlike many other related disciplines, these battles are not just tempests in teapots. This paper, for instance, is on carbon taxes, and papers in these journals have actual, real-world effects on policy makers deciding billion-dollar policies. Yes, all of academia is driven by petty squabbles, but in most cases either (a) the discipline has a much tighter connection to empirical truth, or (b) none of it really affects the larger world. Economics is almost unique for being both deeply unmoored from hard results (with incredibly baroque statistical strategies to compensate) and incredibly significant for real-world policies. So the fact that they choose really important topics like carbon taxes to have their ape hierarchy fights over is especially dismaying.
posted by chortly at 1:29 PM on January 25 [11 favorites]


Economics is almost unique for being both deeply unmoored from hard results

Heh. Let me introduce you to medicine.
posted by Galvanic at 2:41 PM on January 25 [6 favorites]


Do you, though? Here, the evidence shows that Judd wrote straight to Heckman directly. There's a lot of backchannel communication that isn't part of the editorial record. That's where the real politicking happens -- if you have access to it.

I would certainly see the effects of this sort of exchange unless it went absolutely nowhere. (And a scenario where it went nowhere is also a scenario where I think it would be most likely to get forwarded). Granted, this journal is structured in a way that decision making can't happen without communication visible to everyone on the inside, which maybe is not how these things used to be.
posted by advil at 2:48 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I would certainly see the effects of this sort of exchange unless it went absolutely nowhere.

I love your confidence.
posted by Galvanic at 3:13 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Maybe university politics are vicious because enough of the people involved are actually terrible at it

As an academic, this is making me laugh very hard. I feel very seen.
posted by contrapositive at 4:35 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


Economics is almost unique for being both deeply unmoored from hard results...and incredibly significant for real-world policies

This is because everyone assumes this sequence of causality. They believe Keynes (note, he an economist) when he says: "practical men...usually the slaves of some defunct economist".

No. The economic rationale is just a political trojan horse for some power play. That is its sole purpose.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:57 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Everyone in this story sucks. If you want to know what the academic pseudo-discipline of economics and the people who populate it are actually like, read the foul forums on economic job market rumors
posted by moorooka at 8:46 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


But where can I read about why "uncertainty quantification" is controversial in economics?
posted by moorooka at 8:48 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


> read the foul forums on economic job market rumors

Good God was I not expecting the breathtaking racism.
posted by Kikujiro's Summer at 4:11 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


No. The economic rationale is just a political trojan horse for some power play. That is its sole purpose.

I had a grad school instructor who said economics was just Applied Political Justification. He was a comparative psychologist but his brother was an economist who worked for the Canadian government of Brian Mulroney on plans incentivizing the depopulation of the maritime provinces.
posted by srboisvert at 4:48 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Kikujiro's Summer: Good God was I not expecting the breathtaking racism.

If you convince yourself that the free market is fair, racism is pretty much the only logical conclusion you can come to.
posted by clawsoon at 5:09 AM on January 26 [5 favorites]


If you want to know what the academic pseudo-discipline of economics and the people who populate it are actually like, read the foul forums on economic job market rumors

Not an economist and I'd agree that the distribution of temperaments among economists is skewed towards "tendentious asshole" a bit more strongly than for academia in general.

But, what a job board looks like isn't necessarily good evidence for that. Political science has an analogous board that's populated almost entirely by racist trolls with, as far as anyone can tell, little or no connection to the discipline. Or at least, as of a while ago there were almost none of the "Here are the job ads, here's who interviewed there, here's who got the offer" posts and questions about the hiring process that used to dominate the board, that having been replaced with overtly racist and misogynistic diatribes.

Not being an economist I don't read ejmr but the two boards are connected enough that I'd expect the trolls infesting one to spread to the other.

This isn't to say that everything is sunshine and puppies. Even when it was focused on its notional topic, the political science one still had some really breathtaking misogyny on the order of "which phd advisor has the biggest tits."
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:17 AM on January 26


It's the "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" of Sciences, where the theorems are made up and the points wouldn't matter, except then you have people who believe in it strongly and have the power to fuck up the lives of millions or bilions.

All models are made up. Anyway, the asshole involved here, Heckman, won the nobel for his econometric work, which is actualyl really useful!
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:01 AM on January 26


So can anybody in academia tell me whether "accept this paper because otherwise my student will have a hard time getting a job" is normal?

I have never seen something like this, but part of the background is that economics has an absurdly time consuming review process, much of which is mendacious nonsense. It can take years to get a result accepted in a top journal, and you often now have papers that are so long with 1000 alternative specifications that they are unreadable. As pointed out, a top journal paper can carry you into a funded position. I could understand “you are going to accept this paper eventually because you know and I know that these reviewer objections are nonsense. Just get on with it so we can move on with our careers.”
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:08 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


I went through this more, and now I am pretty much on team Heckman. My characterization of Judd's initial position is basically correct, but from a glance the initial editor's concern isn't wrong either.*

Heckman is being more than fair - out of a lot of respect for Judd he allows a submission of almost an identical paper instead of a re-submission because that will get it out of the old editor's responsibility. There is no specific conflict of interest or other "usual" reason to justify this move. Heckman is right that this kind of editor shopping basically never happens and isn't something they want to encourage, so please don't publicize it. You can imagine the impact within the editorial board of essentially over-ruling an editor's decision without a great justification. Heckman asks for an unusual courtesy (don't discuss this editorial weirdness publicly) in exchange for the extraordinary step of re-reviewing under a new editor. Judd then goes on a warpath because he didn't get an immediate favorable decision.

* The concern seems to be that the underlying model (for the effects of a carbon tax) has at least a few key parameters, like how necessary CO2 emitting activity is for various uses. If you don't have an idea of what those parameters are, your final answer (how much carbon tax at a given level affects the economy) could be almost anything. The paper's conclusion is more or less "we show that you can make this kind of model work, and there is almost complete uncertainty in what will happen with a carbon tax." Kind of getting lost is a second source of uncertainty that they discuss (unforeseen events are very influential). That's not an uninteresting conclusion to me, and it has a lot of policy relevance (a. we shouldn't be so confident on what will happen if we slap a huge tax on carbon, b. perhaps the most important research we can do is try to figure out those model parameters so we can plan a rational approach to carbon pricing). On the other hand, in a certain epistemic way, the paper's conclusion is also the conclusion you started with (I don't exactly know what the effects of a carbon tax are, glad to hear that you don't either), so what's the point? The paper is in a way describing a failed approach at figuring out optimal carbon pricing because it relies on things we don't know.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:43 AM on January 27 [4 favorites]


> moorooka: "But where can I read about why "uncertainty quantification" is controversial in economics?"

I was also curious about this, especially since it seemed to be contrasted against calibration which I (coming from a non-econ background) was deeply skeptical about when I heard it for the first time. I've since learned that a bunch of different things get called "calibration" so now I'm not exactly sure how skeptical I should be, if at all. At face value, the "uncertainty quantification" that Judd describes seems like a much more familiar methodology to me so I'm not sure how this is stacked up against calibration in the econ world.
posted by mhum at 5:01 PM on January 27


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