No one cared about Bryan’s spreadsheets

From Bryan:

The most painful part of writing The Case Against Education was calculating the return to education.  I spent fifteen months working on the spreadsheets.  I came up with the baseline case, did scores of “variations on a theme,”  noticed a small mistake or blind alley, then started over.  Several programmer friends advised me to learn a new programming language like Python to do everything automatically, but I’m 98% sure that would have taken even longer – and introduced numerous additional errors into the results.  I did plenty of programming in my youth, and I know my limitations.

I took quality control very seriously.  About half a dozen friends gave up whole days of their lives to sit next to me while I gave them a guided tour of the reasoning behind my number-crunching.  Four years before the book’s publication, I publicly released the spreadsheets, and asked the world to “embarrass me now” by finding errors in my work.  If memory serves, one EconLog reader did find a minor mistake.  When the book finally came out, I published final versions of all the spreadsheets underlying the book’s return to education calculations.  A one-to-one correspondence between what’s in the book and what I shared with the world.  Full transparency.

Now guess what?  Since the 2018 publication of The Case Against Education, precisely zero people have emailed me about those spreadsheets.  The book enjoyed massive media attention.  My results were ultra-contrarian: my preferred estimate of the Social Return to Education is negative for almost every demographic.  I loudly used these results to call for massive cuts in education spending.  Yet since the book’s publication, no one has bothered to challenge my math.  Not publicly.  Not privately.  No one cared about my spreadsheets.

Here is more from Bryan Caplan.  I would make a few points:

1. Work is hardly ever checked, unless a particular paper becomes politically focal in some kind of partisan dispute.  You can take this as a sign that Bryan has not dented the political consensus so much, a point I think he would agree with.

2. Researchers discuss and consider your work in a particular area far, far more if you are an insider in that area, making the seminar circuit at top schools.  To be clear, Bryan’s work is discussed far more by intelligent humans who are not education researchers, compared to what virtually all of the education researchers have produced.  Bryan writes in internet space, where the barriers to entry are much lower.  Good for him, I say (duh), but of course not everyone wishes to lower the entry barriers in this manner.  And internet writing does have entry barriers of its own.  For instance, Bryan has been blogging steadily for many years, which many researchers simply do not wish to do or maybe cannot do well at all.

3. Overall I think we are entering a world where “research” and “idea production” are increasingly separate endeavors.  And the latter is moving to the internet, even when it is supplemented by non-internet crystallizations such as books.  Bryan’s ideas, of course, have been germinating on EconLog for some time before his education book came out.  Do you like this new world?  What are its promises and dangers?


Comments for this post are closed