Tag Archive for 'Heuristics'


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

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?