Pursuit of Truthiness

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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

Where Academics Succeed, Where We Fail

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Holden Karnofsky’s take from the latest 80,000 Hours podcast on where academics provide the most value and where they could be doing much better aligns a lot with my own, especially as I get ready to write a book that will sum up a lot of the cutting-edge work others have done on US healthcare and try to explain what it all means. Added emphasis is my own:

I used to have this very simplified, “Academia. That’s like this giant set of universities. There’s a whole ton of very smart intellectuals who knows they can do everything. There’s a zillion fields. There’s a literature on everything, as has been written on Marginal Revolution, all that sort of thing.” I really never know when to expect that something was going to be neglected and when it wasn’t. It takes a giant literature review to figure out which is which.

I would say I’ve definitely evolved on that. I, today, when I think about what academia does, I think it is really set up to push the frontier of knowledge, the vast majority, and I think especially in the harder sciences. I would say the vast majority of what is going on in academic is people are trying to do something novel, interesting, clever, creative, different, new, provocative, that really pushes the boundaries of knowledge forward in a new way. I think that’s really important obviously and great thing. I’m really, incredibly glad we have institutions to do it.

I think there are a whole bunch of other activities that are intellectual, that are challenging, that take a lot of intellectual work and that are incredibly important and that are not that. They have nowhere else to live. No one else can do them. I’m especially interested, and my eyes especially light up, when I see an opportunity to … There’s an intellectual topic, it’s really important to the world but it’s not advancing the frontier of knowledge. It’s more figuring out something in a pragmatic way that is going to inform what decision makers should do, and also there’s no one decision maker asking for it as would be the case with Government or corporations.

To give examples of this, I mean I think GiveWell is the first place where I might have initially expected that there was going to be development economics was going to tell us what the best charities are. Or, at least, tell us what the best interventions are. Tell us is bed nets, deworming, cash transfers, agricultural extension programs, education improvement programs, which ones are helping the most people for the least money. There’s really very little work on this in academia.

A lot of times, there will be one study that tries to estimate the impact of deworming, but very few or no attempts to really replicate it. It’s much more valuable to academics to have a new insight, to show something new about the world then to try and nail something down. It really got brought home to me recently when we were doing our Criminal Justice Reform work and we wanted to check ourselves. We wanted to check this basic assumption that it would be good to have less incarceration in the US.

David Roodman, who is basically the person that I consider the gold standard of a critical evidence reviewer, someone who can really dig on a complicated literature and come up with the answers, he did what, I think, was a really wonderful and really fascinating paper, which is up on our website, where he looked for all the studies on the relationship between incarceration and crime, and what happens if you cut incarceration, do you expect crime to rise, to fall, to stay the same? He picked them apart. What happened is he found a lot of the best, most prestigious studies and about half of them, he found fatal flaws in when he just tried to replicate them or redo their conclusions.

When he put it all together, he ended up with a different conclusion from what you would get if you just read the abstracts. It was a completely novel piece of work that reviewed this whole evidence base at a level of thoroughness that had never been done before, came out with a conclusion that was different from what you naively would have thought, which concluded his best estimate is that, at current margins, we could cut incarceration and there would be no expected impact on crime. He did all that. Then, he started submitting it to journals. It’s gotten rejected from a large number of journals by now. I mean starting with the most prestigious ones and then going to the less.

Robert Wiblin: Why is that?

Holden Karnofsky: Because his paper, it’s really, I think, it’s incredibly well done. It’s incredibly important, but there’s nothing in some sense, in some kind of academic taste sense, there’s nothing new in there. He took a bunch of studies. He redid them. He found that they broke. He found new issues with them, and he found new conclusions. From a policy maker or philanthropist perspective, all very interesting stuff, but did we really find a new method for asserting causality? Did we really find a new insight about how the mind of a …

Robert Wiblin: Criminal.

Holden Karnofsky: A perpetrator works. No. We didn’t advance the frontiers of knowledge. We pulled together a bunch of knowledge that we already had, and we synthesized it. I think that’s a common theme is that, I think, our academic institutions were set up a while ago. They were set up at a time when it seemed like the most valuable thing to do was just to search for the next big insight.

These days, they’ve been around for a while. We’ve got a lot of insights. We’ve got a lot of insights sitting around. We’ve got a lot of studies. I think a lot of the times what we need to do is take the information that’s already available, take the studies that already exist, and synthesize them critically and say, “What does this mean for what we should do? Where we should give money, what policy should be.”

I don’t think there’s any home in academia to do that. I think that creates a lot of the gaps. This also applies to AI timelines where it’s like there’s nothing particularly innovative, groundbreaking, knowledge frontier advancing, creative, clever about just … It’s a question that matters. When can we expect transformative AI and with what probability? It matters, but it’s not a work of frontier advancing intellectual creativity to try to answer it.

A very common theme in a lot of the work we advance is instead of pushing the frontiers of knowledge, take knowledge that’s already out there. Pull it together, critique it, synthesize it and decide what that means for what we should do. Especially, I think, there’s also very little in the way of institutions that are trying to anticipate big intellectual breakthroughs down the road, such as AI, such as other technologies that could change the world. Think about how they could make the world better or worse, and what we can do to prepare for them.

I think historically when academia was set up, we were in a world where it was really hard to predict what the next scientific breakthrough was going to be. It was really hard to predict how it would affect the world, but it usually turned out pretty well. I think for various reasons, the scientific landscape maybe changing now where it’s … I think, in some ways, there are arguments it’s getting easier to see where things are headed. We know more about science. We know more about the ground rules. We know more about what cannot be done. We know more about what probably, eventually can be done.

I think it’s somewhat of a happy coincidence so far that most breakthroughs have been good. To say, I see a breakthrough on the horizon. Is that good or bad? How can we prepare for it? That’s another thing academia is really not set up to do. Academia is set up to get the breakthrough. That is a question I ask myself a lot is here’s an intellectual activity. Why can’t it be done in academia? These days, my answer is if it’s really primarily of interest to a very cosmopolitan philanthropist trying to help the whole future, and there’s no one client and it’s not frontier advancing, then I think that does make it pretty plausible to me that there’s no one doing it. We would love to change that, at least somewhat, by funding what we think is the most important work.

Written by James Bailey

March 1, 2018 at 12:32 pm

Job Market Thoughts: Getting an Academic Job Coming Out of a Low-Ranked Program

*This post is meant to organize my thoughts on the economics job market I just went through ahead of a presentation on the market I will give to younger Temple grad students, but it may be useful for others*

The Basic Story

I went on the economics job market this year, my 5th year at Temple. I expected the market to be difficult, since academic economics is fairly hierarchical, rankings-obsessed, and pedigree-driven, and Temple was dead last in one recent ranking of graduate programs (though for the record, I think the department would do better in updated rankings). I applied broadly to academic jobs in the US, sending out about 120 applications; I did not apply outside of the US or academia. I had 12 job interviews, 2 flyouts, and one job offer. I will start as an assistant professor of economics at Creighton University this fall. I am happy with this placement: Creighton is a good school, one which impressed me more every time I learned more about it or interacted more with the people there. The teaching load is a decent 3-2 (3 classes in the Fall, 2 in in the Spring), and the money is very good.

I credit my relative success primarily to three things: getting two papers published, picking a hot field (Health Economics), and being willing to search broadly. I hope you notice that the second two things take essentially no effort on your part, so I highly recommend them.

I’m going to try to describe what went right and wrong on the market. I think it is good to hear lots of people’s stories; even as someone who had read many guides to the job market and listened to many stories, I found plenty to be surprised about.

Managing Expectations

You can definitely get a tenure-track academic job with a low-ranked economics PhD (we do have it good compared to other fields). The only question is how good the job will be. I tried to go in with low expectations, telling myself I had to be satisfied with a job teaching a 4-4 at West Podunk State, since in the grand scheme of things any tenure-track job is a good one. John List is our hero from going from grad school at Wyoming to being a professor at Chicago, but even he had to work his way up from an initial placement at Central Florida. You have to be truly excellent and/or lucky to place at a school as good as the one you are graduating from, much less a better one.

Apply Broadly

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply to the better schools; applying usually only costs you a few minutes, and you never know what might happen. I was pleasantly surprised when I got 5 interviews at research schools (schools where the econ department has a PhD program), and stunned that one of them was from an Ivy League school with a top-10 econ department.

But applying broadly cuts both ways. Think three times before deciding you are above a certain job and so shouldn’t apply. First, the job might be better than you think- a lot of details only become clear in the interview (eg, some schools had much higher or lower teaching loads than I expected). Second, you might not do as well as you think- try to imagine whether you would really turn this department down if the job market has run its course and they are your only offer. Finally, getting more interviews and flyouts means more practice for you- within limits, limits us low-ranked people are unlikely to exceed, more interviews are better.

Pick a Good Field

Health, environmental, and urban are hot right now; theory and economic history are not. There are a lot of openings in general applied/empirical micro (which includes health, labor, and many other subfields), but there are also a lot of candidates. I was surprised by the extent to which field mattered. More than half of my interviews, and all of the best ones, were for positions that were only hiring in health. I also do labor economics and applied econometrics, but had only one interview for a labor-only position and one for econometrics-only. I had an even lower success rate with the open field and applied micro positions- 4 interviews, even though these made up the vast majority of positions I applied for.  It would have made sense to put more time into tailoring my applications to the health-only positions.

Your Advantages

You may not believe it, but there are some advantages to coming out of Temple. We get the chance to teach our own classes early and often, which is not common at higher-ranked schools; this can give us a big advantage when applying to teaching schools. Even better, sometimes the very fact that Temple is low-ranked can help you. Interviewing is difficult and costly for the schools too; schools can only interview 20-30 candidates at AEA’s, and fly out 2-6 candidates to campus. Most places are not trying to pick the absolute best economist on the market to offer a job to, because they know that person will turn them down. They want to pick the best economist who has a good chance of actually going to their school, and staying there.

As Thomas Schelling pointed out, in bargaining weakness can be strength. In this case, the weakness of your school strengthens your ability to credibly say you will accept an offer if the school gives you one. I was shocked to find out that even we can  end up being too good for our own good: I had a preliminary interview at the Southern Economic Association where the entire 40 minutes was them talking up the school and trying to figure out if I would actually be willing to come there; this no West Podunk State, but they were convinced that with my publications I would do better.

You Are A Human Being

We seem to forget this in grad school, stricken by the optimizer’s curse. The optimal behavior for succeeding in grad school, especially during coursework, is to become a boring math robot. But boring math robots are not who interviewers want to talk to and work with. During the job market, schools seem to select for confident but kind extroverts with good social skills. I sometimes struggled to be talkative, extroverted, and empathetic enough during flyouts. So try to regain your humanity as you near the job market.

You are more than your CV. I was surprised to see how important your overall life story can be on the market. When I told the interviewers at one school in a cold state that I grew up in Maine, they all paused to note this as a good thing- I could deal with the weather. I think Creighton was happy to hear that I had been willing to move to the midwest before, to go to college at the University of Tulsa. Several schools got to hear the story of how I met my wife in Nova Scotia. I hadn’t realized before having to explain it to interviewers that my life story was getting to be a complicated one, and that I have moved around an awful lot- Maine, Tulsa, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and West Florida, with a sprinkling of Nova Scotia and France. I think this helped with schools far from Philly (he’s been willing to move a lot before, so he should be willing to again) and hurt me with schools near Philly (one actually emailed me “there seems to be some confusion on our end as to which state you are currently living in”).

Jobs in Non-Economics Departments

Though I occasionally felt clueless about the market for jobs in economics departments, the markets in related fields were (and largely remain) a complete mystery to me.
Since my job market paper is about entrepreneurs, I thought I should apply for academic entrepreneurship positions. This field is young, so I don’t know if anyone understands it well yet. Most of the positions are in management departments.
As a health economist, I also applied to positions in schools of public health, usually in health policy & management departments. The market seems to run a bit later than economics. I’ve often heard that public health schools expect a larger quantity (and, according to economists, correspondingly lower quality) of publications, and this is clear in the job market- they ask applicants to send publications, rather than an unpublished job market paper. I encourage you to learn about the job market in other fields well ahead of time.

Mistakes:

Putting tailoring at the end of the cover letter, rather than the beginning (or both). If something makes you a particularly good match or particularly interested in them, hit them over the head with it- they aren’t going to carefully read 300 cover letters.

Do as little other work as possible during the fall of the job market. Teach as little as you can afford to (luckily, a Kauffman dissertation fellowship together with my wife kept me from being starving and homeless while I did no teaching last fall). I ended up coauthoring a whole paper during the fall, which reduced the time I spent on applications; this probably wasn’t smart.

Randomness

The whole process of the job market has a lot of weird elements. So much could depend on how tired someone on the search committee is when they get to your application, or when you walk in for your interview (once I got a big yawn from an interviewer right as they as their first question. I did not get the flyout). You will have to manage unexpected or misguided questions and comments. I got asked “illegal” questions (about marriage, kids, age) constantly; I laughed it off and answered them thinking it wouldn’t hurt me as a 20-something male with no kids. Even in hindsight I have little idea why some schools chose me for interviews and flyouts while others didn’t.

Start Now

My attitude on the job market throughout grad school was that no one was going to hire me just because Temple University gave me a PhD and some Temple professors had nice things to say about me. My goal was to get as many indications as I could from outside of Temple that I would be a good person to hire. This meant going after nationally-competitive fellowships, presenting at conferences, and above all publishing my work in academic journals. On the market I was pleasantly surprised how many people did know Temple and my advisors, but this is not something you want to rely on at a low-ranked place, and I don’t think I would have got either of my flyouts or any of the research-school interviews if I hadn’t published anything.

The Best Guides

There were 3 guides I kept coming back to every time I got to a new stage of the market. “The Academic Job Search Handbook” is a good general guide to the market. John Cawley’s AEA-recommended guide is a good economics-specific take on the market. Scaling the Ivory Tower is a wonderful bigger-picture guide of how to succeed in academia, written for classical-liberal students but applicable to everyone. I think this guide in particular (and the advice of the Institute for Humane Studies in general) is a big part of why I finished relatively quickly (5 years, compared to a median of 5.5 for econ nationwide and probably 7 at Temple) and with two publications.

I wish you good luck when your turn on the market comes.

Written by James Bailey

February 23, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Mini Biographies

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1) The Great Zucchini: How to make six figures while working two days a week with a high-school education. Plus: the dark side. Great reporting/writing.

2) A Profile of Andrew Sullivan: I knew from his blog that his life, both personally and intellectually, was interesting and a bit contradictory; but this story truly makes the reader wonder if it could all be describing a single person.

3) A Hagiography of Larry Summers: Definitely a puff piece, but it does make him sounds perfectly suited to his current job; and as Dr. Horn says, given who his parents and his uncles were he had no chance of living a gaffe-free life among ordinary people.  My favorite part of the piece is Summers’ quote about why he chose to be an economist:

During his senior year of college, Summers was considering graduate school in both theoretical physics and economics. For weeks, he anguished over whether to pursue his passion (physics) or the family business (in addition to his economist parents, Summers has two uncles–Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow–who won Nobel prizes in the field). After he finally decided on the latter, he explained his thinking to Rollins: “What does a bad theoretical physicist do for a living? He walks into an office, sits at a desk, and stares at a plain white sheet of paper.” “But,” Summers added, “there’s a lot of work in the world for a bad economist.”

4) John Rawls: On My Religion gives insights into the mind of the most influential political philosopher of recent times.  Apparently Rawls was at one point quite religious and considered attending a seminary to study for the Episcopal priesthood.

Written by James Bailey

June 14, 2009 at 6:23 pm

The Loser Decision

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Dilbert guy tells us how his ego screwed up a great opportunity. Of course, this served as a life lesson and things worked out for him in the end.

By his analysis, I think my “winner decision” would be taking a merit scholarship at a school no one in Maine had heard of instead of going to a more respected institution and graduating with $80,000 in debt.

Written by James Bailey

July 23, 2007 at 8:52 pm