Friday, May 19, 2017

On The Virtues Of Good Review Essays

There has been a debate going on now across several blogs starting with Noah Smith on Noahopinion posting about "Vast Literatures as Mud Moats."  He accurately complains that some people try to shut down debates by telling others that they should not speak until they have read "the vast literature" on whatever the topic is.  Noah proposes a "two paper rule," that when someone poses such an argument, they should be asked to present the two best papers in the vast literature, and if those are no good, then the literature can be dismissed. Paul Krugman has weighed in supporting this rule, and providing articles he thinks are good supporting his view that standard Keynesian macro is good, even though Noah's main example of a bad vast literature was the 1960s macro literature, supposedly all no good because of being subject to the Lucas Critique, even though that critique had been known since the 1950 paper by Jacob Marschak.  Then Tyler Cowen weighed in on Marginal Revolution, more or less supporting at least the general principle of the rule, but muddying the waters by dragging in the truly vast literature on climate change and not even limiting it to just one discipline, such as climatology, where the literature is vast enough as it is.

Anyway, I have popped into that debate here and there suggesting that in addition to reading the two (or maybe three) supposedly best papers, one should as well read a review essay of the literature, if one can find one.  There is often much more going on in these literatures, especially the larger ones, than just what one finds in the top two papers.  Noah responded on his blog with an addendum arguing that review essays do not deal with methodological issues, and that this is what he is really looking for by looking at the top two papers.  But, in fact, he is wrong.  The best review essays do deal with methodological debates, and often the debates in literatures involve methodological debates, with sometimes more than two methodologies involved.

Let me be clear that I am sympathetic to Noah's main point: that someone trying to shut down a debate by telling others to read a vast literature at a minimum should be prepared to summarize the main arguments of that vast literature, if not precisely provide two papers or a review essay.  This is not a legitimate way to argue, and any person making such an argument is certainly open to being challenged to put up or shut up with some literature or at least decent summaries of what is in it.

Just to note that review essays can be useful, I am going to list a few fairly recent ones from the Journal of Economic Literature that deal with controversial topics about which there have been substantive, policy, empirical, theoretical, and methodological controversies, without getting into the details of any of those.  But I would suggest that someone wanting to evaluate those literatures might well be helped by reading these essays in addition to whatever somebody might pull forth as the top two papers in those literatures (and the criteria for determining those has not been established at all).

This goes backward in time.

"State and Development: The Need for a Reappraisal of the Current Literature," Pranab Bardhan, JEL, Sept. 2016

"What can we learn from the Weather? The climate-economy literature," Melisse Dell, Benjamin F. Jones, Benjamin A. Olken, JEL, Sept. 2014

"Racial Discrimination in the Labor Market: Theory and Empirics," Kevin Lang and Jee-Yeon K. Latham, JEL, Dec. 2012

"Labor Supply and Taxes: A Survey," Michael P. Keane, JEL, Dec. 2011

"Relative Income, Happiness, and Utility: An Explanaton for the Easterlin Paradox and other Puzzles," Andrew E. Clark, Paul Frijters, and Michael A. Shield, JEL, March 2008

"Neuroeconomics: How Neuroscience can Inform Economics," Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Drazen Prelec, JEL, March 2005

"Trade Liberalization and Poverty: The Evidence so far," L. Alan Winters, Neil McCulloch, and Andrew McKay, JEL, March 2004

"Time Discounting and Time Preferences: A Critical Review," Shane Frederick, George Loewenstein, and Ted O'Donoghue, JEL, June 2002

"The New Institutional Economics: Taking Stock, and Looking Ahead," Oliver E. Williamson, JEL, Sept. 2000

and for a real oldie but goody that may have been more influential than any of the original papers:

"Some Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital," Geoffrey C. Harcourt, JEL, 1972

Barkley Rosser


AXEC / E.K-H said...

Getting out of the economics swamp
Comment on Barkley Rosser on Noah Smith on ‘Vast literatures as mud moats’

Noah Smith says: “The point is, a bunch of smart people can get very big things wrong for a very long period of time, and that period of time may include the present.”

True, this happened with Geo-centrism for roughly 1500 years starting with the smart mathematician, astronomer and geographer Ptolemy around 100 AD. It happened again with economics, starting 200+ years ago with the not so smart Adam Smith. As as result it holds for economics in general “the vast literature actually contains more misinformation than information.”

The situation in economics is special insofar as there are TWO economixes: political economics and theoretical economics. The main differences are: (i) The goal of political economics is to successfully push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to successfully explain how the actual economy works. (ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics scientific standards are observed.

Political economics as a whole is scientifically worthless. The proper place for this “vast literature” is the waste basket. Political economics is easily recognizable by its swampiness. Swampiness is what what Popper called an immunizing stratagem because: “Another thing I must point out is that you cannot prove a vague theory wrong.” (Feynman) Therefore, the political economist is mainly occupied with producing a methodological smoke screen that consists of vague concepts, anything goes, pluralism of false theories, alleged complexity, ontological uncertainty, unreliable data, the faux humility of ‘I know that I know nothing’, and the post-modern replacement of true theory by an emotional narrative.#1

The beauty of the swamp ‘where nothing is clear and everything is possible’ (Keynes) is that logical and empirical failure is inconsequential.#2 What Noah Smith calls the mud moat has indeed saved the life of the representative economist since 200+ years.

The other part of the “crappy vast literature” consists of methodological blunder, i.e. stuff that does not satisfy the scientific criteria of material and formal consistency. This holds for everything that comes under the banner of Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism and Pluralism. These approaches are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent and ALL got the pivotal economic concept profit wrong.

There are the hard rocks of true or false and the swamp between them. The swamp is the natural habitat of agenda pushers, confused confusers, incompetent scientists, political economists, status-quo inertionalist, commonsensers, and anti-scientists. The very characteristic of science is to relentlessly drive the question under discussion to the point of a clear-cut decision between true or false, in other words, to get out of the swamp: “We are lost in a swamp, the morass of our ignorance. … We have to find the roots and get ourselves out! … Braids or bootstraps are necessary for two purposes: to pull ourselves out of the swamp and, afterwards, to keep our bits an pieces together in an orderly fashion.” (Schmiechen)

See part 2

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Part 2

The braids or bootstraps of science are material and formal consistency. Formal consistency is established by the axiomatic-deductive method, material consistency by state-of-art testing.

The very characteristic of economics is that the “vast literature” consists of inconsistent and inconclusive blather or politics dressed up as science. So, perhaps 90 percent of the content of peer-reviewed quality journals consists of models/theories that are axiomatically false. Axiomatically false means based on false Walrasian microfoundations or false Keynesian macrofoundations or ad hoc plucked out of thin air. Therefore, the one and only interesting question in the given situation is how to achieve the paradigm shift from defective micro- and macrofoundations to materially and formally consistent macrofoundations.#3

Accordingly, the straightforward criterion for disposing the “crappy vast literature” speedily into the waste basket is: If it isn’t macro-axiomatized, it isn’t economics.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 See also ‘What is so great about cargo cult science? or, How economists learned to stop worrying about failure’

#2 The political economist and incompetent scientist Keynes was one of the loudest defenders of conceptual vagueness: “Another danger is that you may ‘precise everything away’ and be left with only a comparative poverty of meaning. ... Such a problem was avoided, said Keynes, by Marshall who used loose definitions but allowed the reader to infer his meaning from ‘the richness of context’.” (Coates)

#3 See ‘True macrofoundations: the reset of economics’ said...

This is going to be my only comment on what you have to say on this, Egmont, no matter what else you might post. There is nothing new in this latest set of rantings other than adding "Pluralism" to the set of schools of economic thought that are supposedly locked into following the set of illogical and unscientific and false axioms you claim they all follow, which most of them do not.

Regarding those, you have claimed that among the necessary axioms is that people have "a set of preferences," pulling supposedly from an apparently very bad paper by the usually astute Roy Weintraub. This is false. I listed the six axioms about preferences that are sufficient for the existence of a competitive equilibrium but you are too incompetent to get it. Having a "set of preferences" does not cover that. One can have preferences that do not fulfill any of those axioms, and most economsts do not believe that people fulfull those axioms, certainly not universally. Thus one might have lexicographic preferences, which violate the continuity assumption, and it looks like many very poor people have such preferences. In that case, no utility function can be derived and thus no demand curve and thus no equilibrium. But I fear you really do not understand all this.

Again you tout your wonderful profit theory, which depends on totally false assumptions. You have a vacuous taugological accounting identity, which is only true if direct labor is the only input to production, markets in equilibrium ("clear" in your silly terminology, which you claim happens due to "common sense"), and budgets are in balance. None of these are true in general, and most of them are very rarely true at all ever. Your theory is an empty joke, not remotely a basis for all the perfervid denunciations that you engage in, all of which apply to you more than to those you criticize.

Oh, and from your last post on the previous thread, sorry, but Peano Axiom 1 does not prove that 2+2=4. I guess you were trying to show how "logical" you are, but that there exists a natural number (Axiom 1) does not prove that. As it is, it is an inside joke in my family and among my late father's friends that he proved that 2+2=4 in his most famous book, Logic for Mathematicans, just called Logic in its second edition. Really, Egmont, I am the wrong person to try and make inaccurate and silly statements about mathematical logic to.

Anyway, this will be it from me for now. Have fun firing away, Egmont, as I know you will be unable to resist doing. Maybe Sandwichman will throw another punch at you if you do, but not me on this thread. Have a nice evening.

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Barkley Rosser & other swampies

Noah Smith’s post has been titled “Vast literatures as mud moats” and deals with the use of cargo cult science for agenda pushing. Mud moats is just another term for the phenomenon which I call swampiness.

Noah Smith’s argument does not only apply to the production of scientifically worthless papers but a fortiori to blog posts.#1 It is pretty obvious that EconoSpeak is in the business of swampification. The proof is in Barkley Rosser’s recent posts about Trump, Putin, populism etcetera which do not contain one single atom of valid economics.

When Barkley Rosser occasionally turns to economics, swampiness goes into hyper-drive. To recall, Noah Smith’s argument has been: “If you and your buddies have a political argument, a vast literature can help you defend your argument even if it’s filled with vague theory, sloppy bad empirics, arguments from authority, and other crap.”

This is the actual situation in economics: economic policy arguments and proposals have NO sound scientific foundation. How does Barkley Rosser counter this argument which applies to Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism and Pluralism alike? With the recommendation to read good review essays. This is off the point like recommending not to drink leaded water but to take the lead in the more convenient pill form.

Good review essays, of course, are NOT the way to get rid of the “crappy vast literature” that has been produced by incompetent scientists and agenda pushers. Good review essays only preserve the swamp. Harcourt’s review of the capital controversy is a case in point.

The ambition of science is, of course, to drain the swamp of mere opinion and to eventually reach the firm ground of true theory. Lifelong swampies who see their natural habitat in jeopardy quite naturally defend it.#2 This is why Walrasians, Keynesians, Marxians, Austrians are currently so busy with producing even more mud in the econoblogosphere. Barkley Rosser and his buddies, though, in their utter scientific incompetence are clearly over the top.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 See ‘Feynman Integrity, fake science and the econoblogosphere’

#2 See ‘Failed economics: The losers’ long list of lame excuses’