Moving the mainstream (some notes)

I’ve been wanting to write an essay on this for ages, but every time I think or talk to someone about it, I get hit with more ideas and different approaches. In the interests of not forgetting them, I thought it might be worthwhile formalising, if not my opinions, then at least the topics that I want to write on. I’m very interested in people’s opinions on these, so if you have a particular view, please leave some comments.

  1. Economics as an expression of ideology
  2. Language choice as:
    1. (+ve) a means of aiding communication in a specialised field
    2. (+ve) a means of enforcing definitional and therefore intellectual rigour [e.g. arguments over the meaning of “market failure”]
    3. (~) a shaper of methodology
    4. (~) a signal of author competence or paper quality [e.g. “the market for lemmas” or the comment made by a French philosopher, mentioned by Daniel Dennett in a footnote of his book “Breaking the spell”]
    5. (-ve) an embodiment of ideology or bias [e.g. 95% of the work in feminism interpretting literature seems to be in highlighting this sort of stuff]
    6. (-ve) a barrier to outside comment or involvement
  3. The fact that mathematics in general and modelling in particular are each a choice of language
  4. “All models are wrong; some are useful” — George Box
  5. The different purposes of models:
    1. to explore the implications of particular assumptions [moving forwards]
    2. to illustrate the possibility (or plausibility) of a particular outcome [moving backwards]
    3. to explain an observed outcome, or a collection of observed outcomes [moving backwards]
  6. Closed-form (i.e. analytically solvable) modelling versus simulation modelling
  7. Empirical work: justifying assumptions versus confirming outcomes (or challenging either)
  8. Simplifying assumptions versus substantive assumptions
  9. The reasonableness of assumptions:
    1. Representative assumptions [e.g. Friedman’s billiards player]
    2. Direct behaviour versus emergent behaviour
    3. The importance of context [e.g. what is valid at the individual level may not be at the aggregate level]
  10. Fashions and fads in academia. The conflict between:
    1. The need to tackle “the big issues”
    2. The desire to stand out (do something different)
    3. The impulse to follow-the-leader/jump-on-the-bandwagon
    4. The (incentive driven ?) need to publish rapidly, frequently and consistently [i.e. the mantra of “publish or perish“]
    5. The desire to influence real-world policy or public opinion
  11. Heuristics in academia. Rules-of-thumb or a preference for particular techniques. Is it “better” to learn a few types of model extremely well than several models reasonably well? It does allow researchers to jump onto a new topic and produce a few papers very quickly … [e.g. this]
  12. Mainstream conclusions (or opinions) versus mainstream methodology
  13. How to move the mainstream:
    1. Stay in and push or jump out and call to those still in? [e.g. See, in particular, all the discussion on the topic of heterodoxy vs. orthodoxy and Keynesianism vs. Neoclassicalism around the blogosphere before, during and after this comment by Brad DeLong]
    2. The importance of data
    3. The importance of tone and language
    4. The importance of location (both institution and country) [e.g. Justin Wolfers: “I could do the same work I’m doing now for an Australian institution, and the truth is, no one would listen“]
    5. The importance of academic standing
    6. The risk versus the reward