How blogs are helping in bridging the communication gap between economists and public

As an econ blogger I liked this article by Mark Thoma on the topic. He says economists have a long  long history of engagement on important public policy issues. But this mission was weakened as econs tried to become more scientific preferring to stick in their labs rather than explain things to public. So much of the crisis was not understood by both economists and public.

Economics blogs are helping turn the tide as econs are making efforts to explain the crisis and its fallouts. They are again helping bridge the great disconnect (don’t understand American fascination to the word Great)..

First why did the disconnect happen? Obvious criticism is rising mathematization of Economics. Thoma disagrees it to be the only reason:

Furthermore, I should note that while formalism has its limits and economists should be open to other modes of analysis, I don’t agree with Tony Lawson and others that abandoning mathematical formalism is the key to reconnecting with public issues,[9] or with Fine and Milonakis who say that the “salvation of economics lies in reversing the ‘marginalist revolution.’“[10] It’s not formalism per se that is the problem, it’s the questions that we ask. That is, mathematics is a tool for economic analysis; it is not the analysis itself. If we ask poor questions and build irrelevant models, as we have done to a large extent in recent years, then the tools are wasted. But when we ask the correct questions and bring these tools along, they can be very helpful in ensuring that the analysis is logical, internally consistent, and stated in a common language. We can certainly debate whether all questions can be handled with this mode of analysis – my view is that some questions cannot be effectively answered with these tools and techniques – but that doesn’t imply they are useless in other contexts.

What is more important is to ask important qs and explain the findings to public in english. And this is where blogs come in:

What is needed is a way to translate these highly formal models into understandable, every day terms, to interpret what these mathematical models say, to explain the important ways in which they provide insight, and so on.[11]That’s where blogs come in, and as emphasized by Henry Farrell and John Sideswhen they discuss similar issues in political science, “Blogs not only help political scientists participate actively in public debate, but also connect the academic discourse among political scientists with the conversation in the public sphere.”[12] Instead of dropping marginalism and formalism as a means of reconnecting with the public sphere, blogs provide a window into economics that allows the public to understand the important issues without necessarily understanding the technical apparatus that justifies the conclusions.

He points to following additional reasons for the disconnect:

  • Mathematics and the Desire to be a Scientific Discipline
  • Positive and Normative Economics – clear shift towards Positive economics
  • Sociological Factors – He points there was a pecking order in econs :-) At top are theorists followed by  empiricists and applied economists and last ones are  government and business economists. As third ones lead to policy there should be some communication from top to bottom (telling them what is right economic policy) and bottom to top (telling the top what works on the ground). But this was not happening.
  • Interest in Different Questions: The top of the pecking order  interested in how world works and bottom order in forecasts. Both are connected but perceived differently
  • The Costs of Disengagement: As there was rift amidst econs, the disconnect with public grew.
And then came the blogs. With cheap internet and cheap publishing technology, blogs grew:

For economists, the rise of economics blogs – which has been quite substantial both inside and outside the academic community – can be explained using our favored and simplest construction, supply and demand.

The demand for the information that blogs offer was always present, but the cost of obtaining the information was prohibitively high. If a reporter or policymaker could quickly read the views of many prominent economists on a particular topic through a few clicks on the computer, i.e. at very low cost except for the time involved, they would be likely to do so – same for members of the business community trying to get a read on the economy so they can forecast sales, and so on. For policymakers, the ability to receive near instant feedback on policy proposals and thus learn about positives and negatives they may have overlooked before the policy is finalized would have been valuable. But prior to blogs, there was no way to quickly find and access this information at a reasonable cost.

So much so, economics blogs have risen faster than say Pol Science and Sociology blogs. Economists also now see blog as a useful thing with some big names blogging and funding it useful to share their ideas.
Blogs in turn are helping bridge the divide:
  • Ties to the public
  • Ties to the press
  • Connections to Policymakers

Connections to Other Disciplines

  • Connections to Business and Government Economists
Blogs are also changing how economics is practised:
  • Real-Time Analysis and Policy Prescriptions
  • The Effect of Blogs on the Questions Economists Ask
  • Classroom Teaching
Finally:
We are still working out how blogs fit into academic economics, what professional mores ought to apply to blogging, how blogging relates to the academic mission of teaching, research, and service (including serving the public mission), how it should be viewed in tenure and promotion decisions, and so on. But this is a new endeavor for economists, and such questions are expected. We will get these things worked out over time. For now, however, there is plenty of room for optimism that new forms of communication will continue to enhance the public presence of economics in ways that provide mutual benefits to the profession and the public sphere.
Superb stuff. Thanks to Prof Thoma for showing why and how economics blogs have been useful.. So do keep coming back to this blog…:-)
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