One further thought on the Reinhart and Rogoff fracas

There is a genuine tension between becoming (and staying) “famous” and expressing all the appropriate levels of agnosticism on issues, which fairly often ought deserve quite an extreme agnosticism (see Mark Thoma on this).  It is hard to do both, and you can see this tension in the writings of most if not all well-known economists, at least in their more public pronouncements.  In the “good old days” that tension could be elided.  Academic discourse took place at relatively closed seminars, no quick responses were required, word traveled slowly, back and forth was much less rapid, and in general transparency was lower all around.

I’ve seen the Reinhart and Rogoff book in airports around the world, even though it is to most people unreadable or at best boring.  Could they have still made a splash if they had changed the title to This Time is Different: Why Inference from Macroeconomic Data is Really, Really Hard?  I don’t think so.

Enter the internet and the blogosphere.  Someone criticizes your work, in this case a body of work which has become very famous and made you very famous.  Do you respond by trying to defend the “fameworthiness” of the work, in which case a gross “rightness” might suffice, or at the very least you will try to outline the defensibility of your position.  Or do you respond by spelling out all of the reasons why one might be agnostic about a difficult issue?

I predict that most famous people will respond by trying to defend the fameworthiness of their work.

We as readers then respond by taking media which produce both fame and transparency — the internet and the economics blogosphere and Twitter — and suddenly wielding them as a weapon for transparency alone.  Obviously something won’t look right.  I don’t want to conclude “the fault is ours,” but it is still worth noting the tension between the mediums we patronize and what they are, to the broader world, actually good for.  It’s as if you showed up to Justin Bieber’s birthday party and started complaining that not everyone in the room deserves to be there.  They probably don’t, and their presence at the party should not cause you to overlook their shortcomings.  Still, it’s also good to be self-aware about one’s own role in uttering such a complaint about the quality of the party.

If you are receiving any public recognition at all, choosing how to present your material is one of the most difficult decisions.

Justin Fox has very good related comments.


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