Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘goals’ Category

What makes popular academics popular?

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While most academics work in obscurity, we still show up in the media more than most professions, and a few of us approach genuine celebrity status. What makes these outliers so popular?

An article in the latest New Yorker on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon makes for an interesting case study, particularly as he suddenly became internet-famous in his mid-’50’s following relative obscurity in his field and with the public.

Popularity outside the field often stems from success within it; winning a Nobel, for instance, guarantees a lot of coverage. But some academics succeed wildly with the public following an indifferent reception by their peers, as Peterson shows. He has other features common to popular academics- working on topics that a lot of people find accessible and interesting, and speaking with confidence that borders on hyperbole (most of us might as well be in a competition for ‘most nuanced’).

Another important example, especially for people who aren’t already at the top of their fields, seems to be focusing on a new communication technology that the more established players aren’t using yet. A lot of current public intellectuals are those who jumped into blogging, podcasting or Twitter early and put a lot of time and effort into it. In economics, Tyler Cowen has succeeded best at converting this internet popularity into the trappings of more traditional public-intellectual success: best-selling books and New York Times columns.

Of course, now blogging, podcasting and Twitter are relatively saturated, and no longer present such an opportunity for those that aren’t already well-known. Oddly for a platform that most Americans use, Facebook still seems underused as a platform for reaching people you don’t already know; in economics, Robert Reich seems to have gained popularity by realizing this, along with a good dose of hyperbole. For Peterson, the underused platform was Youtube- again, hugely popular but not really used by academics to popularize their work.

The most under-appreciated reason for why most academics aren’t popular is probably that most simply don’t want to be. Either they don’t see fame as a positive, or they recognize that if they get lots of attention, much of it is likely to be negative. At a minimum, anyone with much internet presence is guaranteed to get criticized in the comments, and often in the main articles. Perhaps more importantly for academics, while a few media mentions increase your standing in the field, getting too popular with the public and the press is a near-universal recipe for having your own field turn on you. This can be from jealously, envy, disappointment that you are taking time away from “real work”, or the perception that you are using too much dumbing-down and hyperbole. For instance, economists often express disappointment in Paul Krugman’s journey from great economist in the 1980’s, to good economist and good public intellectual in the 1990’s, to not-an-economist and famous-but-mediocre pundit after turning up the hyperbole in the 2000’s.

Paul Krugman, Slavoj Zizek, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Jared Diamond, Niall Ferguson, Stephen Pinker…. you can debate how much the hate is deserved vs misplaced but it is always there. For Peterson it has come with unusual speed and intensity. Is it that his hyperbole and dumbing-down is really worse than other celebrity psychologists or self-help types? Is it his “anti-radical-left” political stances? Much of it seems to stem from his audience being primarily young men. Focusing on an audience largely ignored by other academics is part of how he succeeded in the first place; most of us are targeting middle-aged NYT-reading, NPR-listening types, without explicitly realizing it of course.

The easiest way to win is always to be playing a different game than everyone else.

Personally, I hope to do work that people will find interesting enough to read and discuss, but this level of fame does not seem appealing.

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Written by James Bailey

March 11, 2018 at 11:08 am

Brainiac, by Ken Jennings- Highlights

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“If I’d had my way, this would have been just another quickie C-list celeb cash-in, full of my shallow ghostwritten thoughts on why tolerance is good and pollution is bad, filled out with some baby pictures and holiday recipes.”

In fact, in addition to telling the story of Jennings’ time on Jeopardy, it is a fascinating history of trivia, and exploration of whether and how trivia can be useful. Much of this is about quiz bowl:

“Quiz bowl has become a de facto farm club for the big-time game shows… when I took the written test at my Jeopardy audition, I remember thinking how much more arcane and elaborate a quiz bowl question on each of the fifty covered subjects would have been. I felt like a runner who’d been training in high-altitude Mexico City, just to get his lungs in such supercharges shape that events at lower elevations seemed like a piece of cake.”

“I’m no trivia superhero- at every college quiz bowl tournament I ever played in, there were other players who could double my score….I got lucky.” You and me both, Ken.

Quiz bowl prepares people well for answering questions correctly, if not necessarily for the other parts of being on TV: “List the five cleverest, most charming things about yourself! Do it in one sentence! Be funny!”

“Jeopardy, by its own contestant rules, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. If you get a cramp in the last mile of a marathon or don’t quite make it up Everest, there is always next year. but you only get one shot at Jeopardy, and odds are you’re going to lose that very first game. Jeopardy is a shark, mowing through America’s self-declared intelligentsia with its huge, shiny teeth, claiming victims at the implacable rate of two a night (check local listings). You have to be in pretty good shape to escape the teeth for a night or two, but they get everyone eventually.” Way to end this on a high note…

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be anymore.”

Written by James Bailey

July 2, 2016 at 5:28 pm

Mad Economists

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Who is the closest person out there to being a “mad economist”, in the sense of a mad scientist?

I have a hard time thinking of anyone who really qualifies. I think this is because mad scientists do practical things that directly affect the real world- either by building crazy things (death ray, killer robot, 5 assed baboon, et c), or by using crazy methods for research (harming human/animal subjects, making their base underwater/ in an active volcano / on the moon).

Economists tend to be bound to relatively boring methods (doing math on a chalkboard or analyzing data on a computer) that lead to relatively boring outcomes (writing papers that expand our understanding of the world a bit and possibly tell policymakers what to do).

The recent trend toward lab and field experiments in economics certainly expands the possibilities for madness. Prisoners’ Dilemma experiments are a nice touch here, especially when someone decided to run them with actual prisoners. The Phillips machine was a fun one-off. But I can’t think of anything that rises to the level of psychology’s Milgram Experiment, much less the things that have been done in the “real” sciences of biology, chemistry and physics.

Occasionally economists get some power within companies, or start their own. But coming up with a new strategy for a hedge fund or designing auctions for Google doesn’t really get into “madness” territory either. Economists are forever telling the government what to do, but rarely get listened to. During total war they have been vested with lots of power over the economy, though I haven’t heard of any particularly crazy things they did with this power. Levitt’s long con to catch terrorists was a nice touch. Armen Alchian used economics to discover that lithium was the moderator for the atomic bomb, but his only plan to use that information was to write a paper about it, and he abandoned even that at the request of the government.

Image result for dr horrible

But is there anything an economist has done that rises to the level of a Tesla, Mengele, Musk, or TunaPig? Anything an economist might do that could match a single invention of Drs Kreiger, Evil, or Horrible?

Marx? GiveDirectly founders? Shleifer? Jeff Sachs?

In general, PhD economists (myself certainly included) are too much thinkers rather than doers. The closest people we have to mad economists are probably people who learned some undergraduate economics, then went out to change the world- people like Elon Musk or Dread Pirate Roberts.

Who am I forgetting? What would a real mad economist look like?

Written by James Bailey

January 18, 2016 at 6:42 pm

Against Talent

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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)

Written by James Bailey

May 30, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Some Ideas

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1) A big list of unsolved problems. Doesn’t seeing them like that make you want to solve them just to check them off, forgetting the benefits to humanity and the Nobel prize?

2) A debate over complicated, abstract ideas carried out by hundreds of people over decades. Sound hard to understand? Its not so bad if you just look at the map. I had this debate-mapping idea myself but had not done anything with it; I’d like to see lots more of these done, in a slightly different format.

3) According to Time, Rumsfeld failed at counter-insurgency not because it was so inherently difficult but because he simply wasn’t trying very hard. This seems shocking but based on other things I’ve read it is certainly plausible and probably true.

4) Dredge the entirety of New York Harbor. You’ll be rich, an environmental hero, and solve a lot of lingering mysteries.

Written by James Bailey

May 28, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Posted in goals, links, metacognition

Goals

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Forget about looking good

dive right in, and learn something by looking stupid.

Written by James Bailey

July 11, 2007 at 11:27 pm

Posted in goals