In his recent article “Why Academic Writing Stinks”, Steven Pinker highlights many examples of bad academic writing. He argues that academic writing is mostly bad because writing well is hard, writing well about academic subjects especially so.
Pinker mostly discounts the idea that bad writing is a deliberate choice by individual writers made in order to “dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.” Pinker admits that this happens occasionally, and is ironically especially common among professors of English.
While I think most of Pinker’s article is great, I want to push back against his complete dismissal of the idea that “that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness”. Pinker calls this a “myth”, but I have first-hand experience that it happens.
I have repeatedly been told by referees that my writing style is “too casual”. It’s not totally clear what they mean, but I (perhaps self-servingly) take them to be complaining about the very things that Pinker, and other well-regarded academic writers like Dierdre McCloskey, insist are part of good style: not using big words when small ones will do, avoiding jargon when possible, using the first person and active voice- “We run a fixed-effects regression”- instead of the third person and passive voice- “the approach of this paper is to run a regression, utilizing fixed effects.”
I try to explain my work in a way that will be relatively accessible to non-specialists; at the very least I would like economists outside of my field to be able to understand my papers. But referees often ask for such explanations to be cut. Contra Pinker, I think this is exactly meant to “prove my seriousness”- including too many explanations for people who aren’t in my sub-sub-field leads to referees saying that a paper “reads like a grad-student paper”.
Once a referee asked me to cut a paragraph explaining why I used a certain technique because “everyone knows about that”. Clearly not everyone does- at best every applied microeconomist does, though even this was doubtful since the first paper on it had been published only 8 years earlier. I think what they meant was that that anyone who would read this paper should already know about it. But that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy- if you make your papers unreadable to 99.99% of the world, not many people will read them.
So while I somewhat disagree with Pinker, I hope every academic will read his article. I don’t think this will help much. I agree with Pinker that academic writing in general is likely to stay bad- the cost of writing well is putting in hard work to do so, and the benefits to most academics of improving their writing is low. But if more people understood how bad standard academic writing is, they could at least refrain from spending time and effort pushing others to conform to academic writing norms.
PS- Did you know that Dierdre McCloskey’s Economical Writing is available online for free? Highly recommended to anyone who writes in a technical field, or anyone who could believe that a book with the title Economical Writing is actually pretty hilarious.
After a 2-year journey through the journal system, chapter 2 of my dissertation is now published in Applied Economics. The paper focuses on one specific mandate that mostly benefits men over 50. I find that the cost of this mandate is passed on to men over 50 in the form of lower wages. Some men also lose access to employer insurance altogether.
Some of the general lessons from my work so far:
1) There are no free lunches: getting higher benefits means incurring higher costs
2) Laws passed with good intentions can backfire, hurting the very people they are intended to help
3) Employer-based health insurance messes up labor markets
Today the Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations like Hobby Lobby cannot be compelled to cover contraception as part of their health insurance. Most people will interpret this decision in terms of respect and status- they like it because they think it shows respect for religious beliefs, or dislike it because they think it lowers the status of women.
If you are one of the people for whom politics is more about policy than status (there are dozens of us!), you will probably find these papers by me and RomneyCare/ACA architect Jonathan Gruber enlightening. Rather than insisting that the decision should make you happy or outraged, I will leave it to you to connect the dots on what these papers mean for contraception mandates as policy.
People as diverse as Alfred Marshall, Thorstein Veblen, Freidrich Hayek, and Russ Roberts have said that economists try to be physicists when the subject really has more in common with biology. But while people have said this since at least the 1800’s, there are only a couple areas where biology and economics have blended- game theory, evolutionary economics, agent-based computational economics, and some shared statistical techniques. We are still, for the most part, aspiring physicists.
While the actual physics-lite techniques we use work well enough, I think biology is a much better source of metaphors to describe the economy. One I don’t recall having heard before is invasive species. Suppose a new invasive species enters an ecosystem, leading to bad results for the native species. People clamor for the government to “do something”. So the government releases a new invasive species in order to take out the old one. This does not go as planned. In an episode of the Simpsons (possibly discussed in Homer Economicus, which I still need to read), Springfield is threatened by invasive bird-eating Bolivian tree lizards. Principal Skinner suggests that the problem can be solved by importing a new invasive species, Chinese Needle Snakes, to eat the tree lizards. But what about the new Chinese Needle Snake infestation? Simple, just bring in snake-eating gorillas….
This is a great way of describing the unintended consequences of regulation. The government sees some problem out there in the economy, like expensive housing. In order to “do something” and try to solve the problem, they come up with a solution like rent control, without thinking of how their “solution” could end up being worse than the original problem (by reducing the quantity and quality of housing supplied by the market). Rather than admitting their mistake and reversing course, they act by introducing another solution into the market ecosystem to try to correct the problems stemming from their first “solution”- like requiring rooms to stay available for rent if they were ever rented out. Then developers are even more reluctant to take the risk of building new housing, or investing in the improvement of current apartments. A few more “solutions”, and we are well on our way to snake-eating gorillas terrorizing the countryside.
Innate talent really does determine a huge portion of how good we are at various tasks. But for the most part we are better off ignoring this fact.
There is a large innate component to intelligence, but kids deciding it is cool to succeed in class effortlessly based off of smarts leads to big wastes of potential later on. The problem is that your innate ability, or talent, is unchangeable by definition. But the amount and type of effort you spend on something is under your control.
I’ve been thinking that if I want to become excellent at ultimate Frisbee, it would have to be as a handler rather than a cutter, because cutters can benefit enormously from the innate talent of height and high sprint speed*. But of course, in addition the innate components, a huge amount of being a good cutter is about deliberate practice. In fact, this dominates to such an extent that some of the very best deep threats have no height advantage at all. My wife can beat people deep all day, despite being 5 inches shorter than me and a bit slower. In the NFL, we have the examples of 5’6’’ wide receivers like Wes Welker becoming stars. When I say I can’t be a great cutter because I lack the height and sprint speed, it is just an excuse for my current mediocrity- one that holds me back from putting in the effort necessary to get better.
I just attended the American Economic Association’s conference on teaching. I have thought that I will never be a truly great teacher because I lack natural charisma and extroversion. But two people who seem to be truly great teachers, Dirk Mateer and Kenneth Elzinga, insisted at the conference that they are naturally introverted nerds too, and that they got to be as good as they are through practice and a constant focus on how they can become better. Elzinga said that his college speech professor told him to provide updates on how close he was to the end of the talk, “in order to give hope to the audience”; and that no one else received the same advice, implying he was the worst in the class. But despite a complete lack of natural speaking talent, he became a great teacher through outworking and out-thinking other professors. My favorite example of something no one else would think of, or put in the effort to do if they did think of it, is that he writes a personal letter to every student who fails his class- in his intro to economics classes of 1000 students. The fact that you lack talent- or have lots of talent- should not be used as an excuse for failing to put in the hard work and hard thinking needed to become the best you can be.
*(you can infer that sprint speed probably has a huge genetic component by the fact that of the 76 people who have ever run the 100m in less than 10 seconds, 72 were of West African descent)
I am writing this while sitting in the DMV. The Department of Motor Vehicles is often used as an example of how government provides services poorly relative to the private sector. This example is used for a good reason- I would never put up with these sort of wait times if I weren’t legally required to “buy” their products, and in the private sector competition means that multi-hour waits are an extreme exception rather than the norm.
But I have yet to see people recognize that the DMV is a great example of how a single-minded obsession with cutting taxes is not the best way to shrink government. Suppose that we cut the DMV budget in half, and cut taxes accordingly. Most people would say we had just successfully shrunk the government. It would be true that the government was taking fewer literal dollars from people, and spending less on its own employees. But government didn’t really shrink- it merely changed the way it is extracting resources from the population. Instead of paying more dollars in taxes, people will spend more time in lines at the DMV- a terrible fate. The value of people’s lost time could easily exceed the tax savings.
The same idea applies to many regulations. When we went from a draft to an all-volunteer army, government spending went up, but the true size and coercive power of the government went down. We could probably avoid the distortions of the minimum wage if conservatives would embrace wage subsidies, but wage subsidies are clear examples of government spending, while the minimum wage is a hidden tax on employers. Dollars taxed and dollars spent is not a perfect measure of the size and scope of government- in fact, sometimes more taxes and spending can shrink the true size of government.
Of course, there can be other ways to shrink government too. Even better than throwing more money at the DMV so they can hire more employees would be to change the incentives of current employees. Imagine that the manager of a DMV ran a real risk of getting fired when the lines got long, and had the chance to get a bonus when wait times decreased. Private sector-style incentives could lead to private sector-style efficiency. Ideally we can do smarter government, rather than increasing spending. But maybe sometimes, smarter government means more spending, and more spending means a smaller government footprint overall.
Depressed PhD students are in the news again with two articles in the Guardian.
Depression among PhD students is no big mystery; they spend their 20’s beating their head against tough problems for ramen wages with the threat of expulsion constantly hanging over them. What is more surprising is that the problem continues once grad school is over.
On the face of it, professors have the sort of jobs no one should complain about. We have no real bosses. We get paid to talk and write about what we are interested in. We are teachers who only have to be in a classroom for 2.5-10 hours a week, 30 weeks a year. We have good pay and, after tenure, unparalleled job security.
But while the job really is objectively great, and I am annoyed every time I hear academics complain about it, I do see why it can lead to depression.
First of all, independence is a double-edged sword. Many of us were drawn to academia by the idea that we would have no boss, could choose our own projects, and weren’t even required to work closely with any coworkers. But if one side of a coin is independence, the other is isolation. Academics can do all of their research behind a closed door in their office, or at home, without talking to anyone else. Even teaching can mean talking at students the whole time rather than talking with them.
But I think the biggest problem is that academia makes us compare ourselves to the very best people in our field, and leaves us little room for self-delusion about how we are doing in that competition.
In most jobs, you might not think of yourself as in competition against anyone at all. If you do compare your performance to others, it is probably to others at your own company. It is easy enough to convince yourself that you are the best in your organization, or at least that you are above average. Only a few jobs like sales will have publicly shared, objective measures that can prove to you that you are below average at your job.
The biggest part of the job for most academics is research, and the biggest measures of research are published articles and citations thereof. Research is a national, or even international, game. As a researcher trying to publish articles and get them cited, you are in direct competition with the best and brightest all over the world. It is not enough to be the best in your department, or even the best in your state. The top journals publish only a few hundred articles a year, in a profession with tens of thousands of people.
Most journals have a 80-95% rejection rate. We are regularly told that our work is not good enough- sometimes in excruciating detail, with several pages of referee reports explaining problems with your paper, and sometimes with no explanation at all. Even many of the best articles by the best academics get rejected. This constant negative reinforcement is wearing, and keeps our opinion of ourselves from getting too high. There is a lot of evidence that most people are overconfident about their abilities in general; but depressed people seem to be the one exception, the people who know exactly how good they are. It is not clear how much this is depression-inducing brain chemistry reducing overconfidence versus people with realistic self-assessment becoming more depressed, but the later could explain exactly why academics are depressed.