Heuristics in academic economics

Andrew Leigh gives a heads-up on an upcoming conference at the ANU on ‘Tricks of the Argumentative Trade’. Shamelessly repeating Andrew’s quote:

‘Philosophical Heuristics’
Alan Hajek (Philosophy, RSSS, CASS, ANU)
Chess players typically benefit from mastering various heuristics: ‘castle early’, ‘avoid isolated pawns’, and so on. Indeed, most complex tasks have their own sets of heuristics. Doing philosophy well can be a very complex task; are there associated heuristics? I find the grandmasters of philosophy repeatedly using certain techniques, many of which can be easily learned and applied.

‘Argumentative Tricks in Politics and Journalism’
Morag Fraser (The Age)
Politicians and journalists use many argumentative and rhetorical techniques, some of their own devising, others thrust upon them. This talk will survey a field of examples from the media and politics – from the ways and means of factual communication to ‘spin’ – and take an occasional detour through historical precedents and prescriptions.

This is fascinating stuff and it syncs very well with some advice I got from a friend who is a recent economics post-doc: that theoretical economists seem to focus on truly mastering a few key models and then applying them to each topic that they come across. One of the key benefits is that by really knowing these models well, the theoreticians will already know how to prove all of the major propositions, which allows them to generate new papers very rapidly. My friend opined that the biggest names seemed to focus on just 4 or 5 different models, while the smaller names either didn’t focus on any particular model, or focused on just one or two.

It also matches my (extremely) limited exploration of economic literature. I’m currently avoiding study for my Development and Growth exam and sometimes it seems like one of the professors whose papers we regularly study only ever looks at a topic through a principal-agent model. We’ve had moral hazard put forward as explaining credit rationing, the success of microfinance, agricultural organisation, the maintenance of social networks, the optimal organisation for the provision of public goods in general, problems in health care, problems in education, and, and …

If, by some chance, any academic economists out there happen to read this: Do you see this in your readings? Do individual researchers (or more generally, specific universities) seem to always spit out the same model in different topics?

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