Rodrik’s idealism

In the aftermath of the Reinhart/Rogoff fiasco, Dani Rodrik has called for economists to stick to their knitting:

…economists [should not] second-guess how their ideas will be used or misused in public debate and shade their public statements accordingly. …few economists are sufficiently well attuned to have a clear idea of how the politics will play out. Moreover, when economists adjust their message to fit their audience, the result is the opposite of what is intended: they rapidly lose credibility.

economists should match honesty about what their research says with honesty about the inherently provisional nature of what passes as evidence in their profession.

Rodrik’s view is very noble but difficult to successfully implement. On the one hand we need only look at Paul Krugman’s slide in credibility among economists when he became a nakedly partisan blogger. However, avoiding any perception of political alignment is incredibly difficult and Krugman has become a household name with his writing for the NYT.

If you want to have some impact on policy then you need to confidently relate your research to the hot issues of the day. The majority of research slides by unnoticed because researchers are so concerned about remaining politically neutral that they’re afraid to voice a strong opinion on their work’s policy relevance. That’s understandable because having an opinion usually requires a few leaps of faith that aren’t fully supported by your evidence. For a start, research you started over a year ago rarely has the same currency when completed that it did when you started. If you want it to be noticed the press release and the substance may have to part ways slightly. Failing to make those leaps, sadly, is likely to condemn your research to irrelevance: it’s more important for the purposes of persuasion to be confident than to be right.

Facing that difficult choice it’s no wonder that many academics mix opinion with evidence in their public pronouncements. The technocrats of this blog may dream of a day that Rodrik’s mantra becomes the norm, but the incentives are against us.