“The Superiority of Economists”

by on December 1, 2014 at 2:10 am in Economics, Education, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the title of a new paper (pdf) by Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion, and Yann Algan, here is the abstract:

In this essay, we investigate the dominant position of economics within the network of the social sciences in the United States.  We begin by documenting the relative insularity of economics, using bibliometric data.  Next we analyze the tight management of the field from the top down, which gives economics its characteristic hierarchical structure.  Economists also distinguish themselves from other social scientists through their much better material situation (many teach in business schools, have external consulting activities), their more individualist worldviews, and in the confidence they have in their discipline’s ability to fix the world’s problems.  Taken together, these traits constitute what we call the superiority of economists, where economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement.  While this superiority has certainly fueled economists’ practical involvement and their considerable influence over the economy, it has also exposed them to more conflicts of interest, political critique, even derision.

The paper has interesting bits throughout, such as:

…the top five sociology departments now [total] 35.4 percent in the American Journal of Sociology, but 45.4 percent in the Journal of Political Economy, and a sky-high 57.6 percent in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

The section on the rise of finance starts on p.18, worth a read.  And here Paul Krugman adds extensive and very interesting comments.  My view is that economists are in fact the smartest of the social scientists (on average), but this also has led economics to degenerate somewhat into a game of signaling smarts, to the detriment of breadth and knowledge of facts about the world.

For the pointers I thank Gabriel Zucman and Claudia Sahm, who comments as well.

1 dan1111 December 1, 2014 at 2:19 am

They include a section on “insularity” without a hint of irony.

2 Steve Sailer December 1, 2014 at 2:25 am

Here’s an old set of GRE scores by intended field, with the top 5:

Physics and Astronomy
Philosophy
Mathematical Sciences
Materials Engineering
Economics

http://isteve.blogspot.com/2007/08/graduate-record-exam-scores-by-graduate.html

3 Jacques Crémer December 1, 2014 at 2:40 am

The sentence on the concentration of publication is a bit misleading as quoted.. It should be “the top five sociology departments account for 22.3 percent of all authors published in the American Journal of Sociology, but the top five economics departments account for 28.7 percent of all authors in the Journal of Political Economy (JPE hereafter) and 37.5 percent in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE). The contrast is even starker when one turns to the institutions from which the authors got their PhD, with the top five sociology departments now totaling 35.4 percent in the American Journal of Sociology, but 45.4 percent in the Journal of Political Economy and a sky-high 57.6 percent in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.”

In any case, the comparison should really be with the American Economic Review, as both the QJE and JPE have special links to one of the top five departments.

4 Olav Sorenson December 1, 2014 at 4:38 am

The American Journal of Sociology also has a special link to one of the top five Sociology departments — the University of Chicago — so the comparison seems appropriate.

5 dirk December 1, 2014 at 2:43 am

I began in college as an economics major at University of Texas but the intro courses were so boring I switched to English Lit. I probably should have stuck with it but those intro courses made me think the field was full of morons.

6 Lord Action December 1, 2014 at 10:21 am

A lot of fields are like that, because of a desire to present things in historical order of discovery, which in turn places things that are mathematically or computationally simple first. Biology and chemistry come to mind.

Math, physics, and computer science are lucky in that the elementary things are quite rich. So, taught well, Differential and Integral Calculus is not the memorization-oriented exercise in taxonomy that Introductory Biology is.

7 dearieme December 1, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Yeah, but “Differential and Integral Calculus” is school-level stuff, not university-level.

8 Andy December 2, 2014 at 11:48 am

You should have taken Hamermesh

9 Hak Choi December 1, 2014 at 2:55 am

Dirk is right. According to the article by Tyler, this field is also full of snobs!

10 Badger December 1, 2014 at 4:00 am

I have observed that any subject that is complex enough enables the person doing it, if smart enough, to draw the conclusions they prefer. This is certainly the case with macroeconomists. Anyone who pays attention to the economics blogosphere will see the same people spinning the same data. I’m sure the Krugmans and Mankiws of this world would like to believe that their economic prescriptions are the result of some hard-headed analysis but I’m pretty sure that Krugman was a compassionate, left-leaning kid and it’s no surprise that Mankiw hails from the religious right. It seems unlikely their stances flow entirely from their economics (and it’s no surprise that despite my intentions I find myself reading one with more sympathy than the other).

No-one would accuse Tyler of being narrow or lacking integrity. What a (cheeky) long-time critical reader might do is wonder whether he hitched himself to the libertarian post a little early in his life and struggles to give it up (though that seemed more likely a few years ago than now).

This is not unique to economists though. Philosophers do exactly the same. A lot of them spend vast amounts of time arguing for positions that we know with a decent amount of certainty from science can’t be true. They get to do this because philosophy is really hard and as a result it’s really difficult to know if you’re making a mistake and there is no consequence for doing so.

Complexity, intelligence and the human capacity for self-deception are a problem.

11 YSK December 1, 2014 at 10:35 am

Excellent point. These very smart people are not wise enough to know the limits of their smartness.

12 Anon December 1, 2014 at 10:48 am

+1
I am ideological, therefore I am………

13 mavery December 1, 2014 at 11:17 am

I would go further and just say that our prior experiences inform what theories appeal to us. So it’s not so much that Mankiw or Krugman are letting their bias get in the way of their economics. Rather, their economics are in some sense derived from their biases.

14 Urstoff December 1, 2014 at 10:58 pm

What philosophers do that? I would imagine you’re poking fun at mind-body dualists of some sort, but unfortunately, plenty of neuroscientists are just as bad at philosophy (holding hopelessly simple models of theory reduction or a naive monism of some kind) as some philosophers are at science. That probably supports your main point though. Scientists think they have no need of philosophy because they are radically underinformed in philosophy and vice-versa. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large, which is just one of the many types of bias that we can’t help but be subject to.

15 W. Peden December 2, 2014 at 8:05 am

Urstoff,

The interesting thing to do with a neuroscientist (especially professors) is to just get them to talk about their subject for 5-10 minutes, especially in relation to philosophical questions. I’m sure there are some neuroscientists who can do this without claiming both (a) that the mind is identical with the brain and (b) that the mind is caused by the brain; I just haven’t met them yet.

Or Badger might be referring to the idea that psychologists have empirically refuted the “blank slate” claim, which is complicated by the fact that there are many “blank slate” theories of the mind. Locke may have been right or wrong, but he wasn’t saying what a lot of people think he said.

On the other hand, partly because for many centuries philosophy was very intimately tied up with science, you can find things that philosophers say that are just empirically wrong. Contemporary philosophers usually acknowledge this fact e.g. no-one I’ve read actually still defends David Hume’s description of how we inductively reason, even if they still defend his scepticism about induction.

16 ummm December 1, 2014 at 5:26 am

pretty much all macro economics has boiled down to printing money, because that is what works.

17 chuck martel December 1, 2014 at 5:41 am

” Economists also distinguish themselves from other social scientists . . . in the confidence they have in their discipline’s ability to fix the world’s problems.”

““The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Friedrich Hayek

18 dearieme December 1, 2014 at 6:03 am

Hayek was that unusual creature, an economist with a good brain and a reflective disposition.

“their subjective sense of … entitlement”: they’ve not yet reached the hoped for status of dentists, then.

19 carlolspln December 1, 2014 at 4:51 pm

“Economic history is a never-ending series of episodes based on falsehoods and lies, not truths. It represents the path to big money. The object is to recognize the trend whose premise is false, ride that trend and step off before it is discredited.” -George Soros

20 Art Deco December 2, 2014 at 12:08 am

The sentiment of a man who made his wad with counting-house shenanigans rather than producing goods and services.

21 rayward December 1, 2014 at 7:51 am

“My view is that economists are in fact the smartest of the social scientists (on average), but this also has led economics to degenerate somewhat into a game of signaling smarts, to the detriment of breadth and knowledge of facts about the world.” I would agree that “signaling” is a problem, but not so much signaling smarts as signaling a certain ideology. Signaling can generate enormous financial support from those with the resources. Colleges have always been recipients of large financial contributions from interested alumni but economics departments at many colleges have become magnets for large contributions from those more interested in promoting a certain ideology than in promoting intellectual inquiry. That, I believe, is a two-edged sword, and something the recipients will eventually regret.

22 Ray Lopez December 1, 2014 at 8:15 am

Case in point: Andrei Shleifer is a Russian American economist and Professor of Economics at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1991 (he’s comfortably in the 1%, and I mean comfortably. Close to a billion net worth).

23 Susanne December 1, 2014 at 8:22 am
24 Reg Monkey December 1, 2014 at 9:43 am

Tyler lifting content from EJMR now?

25 The Devil's Dictionary December 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

“Economists also distinguish themselves from other social scientists through their much better material situation…” – understanding finance is good, if only for financial reasons;

“….their more individualist worldviews…” – economists are supposed to know where Marx made mistakes, aren’t they?

26 Chang December 1, 2014 at 10:32 am

Social Science are, by and large, totally worthless. Economics is the sole exception.

Every sociologist on the planet could keel over from a heart attack tomorrow and the world would be slightly improved.

The average social scientists actively makes the world a worse place.

27 Yancey Ward December 1, 2014 at 11:41 am

No, economics isn’t an exception.

28 FC December 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I don’t know of any economists who tortured a chimpanzee or a human to death, so that’s a clear advantage over psychologists.

29 Yancey Ward December 1, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Have you read Krugman’s convoluted arguments for and against the same thing in different months? Granted, at least the chimps can’t read.

30 CD December 1, 2014 at 11:58 am

Way too much nuance! Tell us what you *really* think about social scientists.

31 CUNYprof December 1, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Sure, economists are “smarter” in aggregate GRE score than other social scientists, but only one point above philosophers, and they exceed the others only by virtue of their quantitative scores. If you take the verbal reasoning scores alone, which are more heavily loaded with Spearman’s g, economists fall below anthropologists, political scientists, and historians while coming above only psychologists and sociologists, many of whom will peel off at the professional master’s level rather than pursue PhDs. See the table for GRE means August 2011-April 2014 (ets.org/s/gre/pdf/gre_guide_table4.pdf).

32 Paul December 1, 2014 at 1:59 pm

They seem to have a problem understanding the organization of the econ job market when they call it “a collectively managed process.”

33 Robert H. December 1, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Are law professors not social scientists? I think you can make a case they are more special than economists:

1. Also highly paid with consultant opportunities, their own schools outside the liberal arts college, etc.
2. Have captured an entire branch of government. You guys just get the fed.
3. Law professors seem better at manipulating laws to get rich (ie, requirements that lawyers attend law school) than finance professors are at manipulating markets to get rich (don’t most just buy the market?). This could indicate a better practical grasp of their field of study.

34 Ryan December 1, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Krugman’s comments are mostly good, but the macro wars are dramatically overstated in the blogosphere. Maybe Krugman has been away for too long (there was that famous Sargent comment about Krugman avoiding the macro seminar). My (admittedly very short) experience among macroeconomists is that the New Keynesian vs. everyone else fight isn’t really a thing. For practical reasons many people specialize in a certain model type, but they appreciate and contribute to seminars that employ other approaches. In my PhD program, at least, professors never gave the impression that there are two kinds of macro, and they certainly never took a side. That includes the advance macro sequence. And nobody is writing papers with bare bones RBC models–every macro model has frictions. As best I can tell, the saltwater/freshwater fight is mostly about bloggers and journalists trying to inject extra tribalism where it need not exist.

I think he might also be somewhat off in his comment on international finance. The New Keynesian model isn’t super common in IF, as I recall. Open economy models are often partial equilibrium RBC with various financial frictions, see eg Enrique Mendoza’s stuff.

35 aram December 1, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Economists definitely ACT as though they are superior.

36 Paul December 1, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Economics is insular?
Try typing “most influential economics blogs” into Google.
Then try “most influential sociology blogs”

Look at the variety of economics blogs. You’ve got left, right, middle, heterodox and just plain strange.

Sociology is not engaging with the public.

37 Popeye December 1, 2014 at 10:33 pm

would it kill you to read the paper before having an opinion about it? They are referring to citation patterns in research when they refer to insularity. Furthermore the paper is called the “The Superiority of Economists” and quite explicitly refers to economists having greater impact on policy than other social scientists. Conversely this is a sociology paper about the economics profession, it’s obviously fairly engaged with things outside of a tiny comfortable sociology bubble.

But hur dur these idiot sociologists should have dun a Google search amirite?

38 d December 2, 2014 at 10:56 am

“Sociology is not engaging with the public.”

It can’t. It wouldn’t survive, and I think sociologists know this.

39 Brathmore December 1, 2014 at 10:46 pm

“The Superiority COMPLEX of Economists…”

40 Ivy December 2, 2014 at 12:06 pm

The field of economics suffers from the same affliction as the Boston-NYC-Washington pundit/media world.
The latter was shown to read each other a lot more than outside sources. That gave rise to the justifiable critique of living in an echo chamber.
Economists would do themselves and the world at large a lot of good if they got out of their offices, seminars, conferences and colloquia to see how people live. Try a road trip across country, stopping in small towns to see how people, businesses, farms, schools, local governments and assorted others are coping, and how they live their lives. Try practice before theorizing!
Without that, economics will continue to be a dry, unrealistic field that will devolve further from reality. At least Krugman sometimes makes an effort to try to reach the public, even if it is via a biased, discredited organization like the NYT

41 Art Vandalay December 3, 2014 at 11:52 pm

You clearly have no idea what economic research looks like. And you seem rather dumb.

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