Are Economists Influential Enough?

There’s no doubt in my mind that economics is currently the queen of the social sciences. Economists have invaded intellectual territory that was previously the exclusive domain of our friends in sociology, political science, criminology, geography and, to a degree, history. While the President regularly consults his Council of Economic Advisers, I’m not aware of him seeking the counsel of parallel councils of sociological, historical, or psychological advisers. (I will concede that he consults political advisers, although I suspect that they are only tenuously connected to scholarship in modern political science.) Popular discussion of economics trumps that of the other social sciences. Newsweek even declared economics “the sexiest trade alive.”

But it turns out that economists are terrible book writers, and have had almost no influence on the humanities.

The evidence? Thomson Reuters has compiled a list of the books most often cited in scholarly journals, and it is pretty compelling stuff. The list is filled with folks who are commonly cited in the humanities, with Michael Foucault at the top. Perhaps unsurprisingly, philosophers dominate, winning eighteen of the top thirty-seven slots. But our sister social sciences also do pretty well, with eleven sociologists, and three psychologists (plus two psychoanalysts), two political theorists, and two anthropologists.

But economics? Well, way down, second-last on the list, there’s one economist. Sort of. It’s Karl Marx, who is correctly also identified as a sociologist and a political theorist.

What explains the poor showing of economists?

It can’t be that we don’t write books. Indeed, the movement of economic scholarship from books to journals is relatively recent. Nearly all of the most important works in economics are, in fact, books. Think about: Smith‘s Wealth of Nations (and his Theory of Moral Sentiments); Ricardo‘s Political Economy; Marshall‘s Principles; Keynes‘s General Theory; Von Neumann and Morgenstern‘s Games and Economic Behavior; Samuelson‘s Foundations; Friedman and Schwarz‘s Monetary History; or, more recently, Becker‘s Economics of Discrimination, Human Capital and his Treatise on the Family. But apparently there’s not enough here to be as influential as, say, a post-structuralist philosopher like Judith Butler.

My guess is that the absence of any economics book from the Thomson Reuters list reflects the fact that economics has had no influence on the humanities. I’m not sure why. Political perceptions may be part of the story: For some reason, economics is perceived to be a somewhat right-wing discipline. But that can’t be the whole story. So I’m interested: Do you have any other explanations?

(HT: Marginal Revolution)


Dylan

"Philosophers dominate". Yes, but not the philosophers studied in most philosophy departments; rather it's the philosophers that most people in philosophy departments think are charlatans (for the most part anyway; I'm thinking of people like Butler and Derrida).

I find this a very depressing list.

Sam R

As an academic economist at a large state school with an active research agenda, I've noticed a reluctance to do true interdisciplinary work with others in the humanities. It is my impression that economists hesitate to do so because of the general inability of other departments to do the technical econometrics we require. Meanwhile, many in the other humanities fields are put of by the dispassionate approach that economists take when viewing a problem. These barriers seem to persist at many very good research institutions.

John

Because economics is not a science?? It's art, and correlation and "potential" causality. What tool has been created by an economist, that wasn't immediately "proven" by another economist to be inefficient?

Bill

To simplify grossly, the humanities study other peoples' thinking and writing ("texts"), while economists and other empirical social scientists as well as natural scientists study "reality". The sociologists and political scientists cited are not empirical social scientists. There is almost a complete disconnect between the humanities and "reality-based" disciplines like economics, biology, physics, etc. Note also that this goes both ways. How many economists have ever cited (or even read) Michel Foucault, the leading humanities citation. And why on earth would they ?

brent

Maybe it has to do with some prominent economists selling their souls to politics. I offer two examples, both which involve the recent debate on providing unemployment payments:

1. Larry Summers. See link for discussion of Mr. Summers contradicting his own writings with regards to the effects of unemployment benefits on the incentive to work. In today's WSJ:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303348504575184802145949666.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_AboveLEFTTop

2. Paul Krugman. See link for discussion of Mr. Krugman's attack on Sen. Jon Kyl. Mr. Kyl publically worried that unemployment benefits were a disincentive to work. Mr. Krugman called that view "bizarre". A perusal of Mr. Krugman's own academic writings finds Mr. Krugman making the same argument as Sen. Kyl:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703915204575103720332317434.html

I personally think that we need to provide support to our unemployed fellow citizens, even though I tend to agree with the disincentive issue. I am not grinding against the two gentlemen for their current positions, only their intellectual fraud.

If economists are to be influential, they need to not sell out.

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nobody.really

Two hypotheses, somewhat related.

1. Many people outside of the field regard economics as, I dunno -- a branch of accounting that doesn't lead to job offers? It's specialized and number-obsessed. No doubt it's important in its own (vaguely-understood) way, much the way chemistry is. And it's about as likely as chemistry to influence the other social sciences or humanities.

2. The weaker your conceptual models, the less clearly you can defend any conclusion. Where your conclusions differ from conventional wisdom, the more likely you are to expend effort trying to reconcile your conclusions with that wisdom. To the person who holds those conventional views, this seems respectful.

Conversely, the stronger your conceptual models, the less deference you pay to conventional wisdom. To people who hold conventional views, this seems like a slap in the face.

Now, generally the academic disciplines with the strongest conceptual models - physical sciences, say - are also the models that address arcane subject matters that are not the province of much conventional wisdom. It's hard to imagine what conclusion you might draw from a chemistry experiment that would shock the public consciousness; the public simply doesn't have that many expectations about chemicals.

Unlike physical sciences, economics addresses social dynamics -- dynamics that ARE the subject of popular wisdom. And unlike other social sciences and the humanities, economics has relatively strong conceptual models. Consequently economists are prone to draw conclusions that run contrary to conventional wisdom, and to defend those conclusions on the basis of their conceptual models without regard to conventional wisdom. Inadvertently, it's face-slapping time.

However, the inaccessibility of economics does not merely arise through inadvertence. As many jokes attest, economists are not merely unsentimental, they are ANTI-sentimental. An economist will often revel in the opportunity to rub people's noses in the conclusion that their pre-conceptions are fluffy-headed poppycock. To many people (including some economists, I fear), economics appears to be less a social science than a religion, revealing to a chosen few the mighty counter-intuitive truths by which to pass judgment on a sinful world.

If I'm an accomplished scholar in another discipline, to what extent am I open and receptive to this kind of intellectual upbraiding? A humanities professor will be more than happy to seek insights from psychology, political science and history to elucidate the behavior of Henry IV, both the historical and literary figure. The scholars in those fields don't regard it as their duty to explain why humanities professors are dolts. If only the same could be said of economists....

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MikeM

Maybe your evidence of economics being "queen" is a sampling error. If you reference the local TV news or newspapers, you'd come away with the impression that the "king" of all sciences is meteorology, since the weather ALWAYS makes the broadcast or print edition. They literally put a meteorologist on every night, on every TV network!!

It's not a question of a science's importance, it's a question of it's relevance.

Much of the relevance of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers may stem from politics, not scientific necessity. There's a perception that the Administration needs to be "in control" of the economic climate, so he simply needs a Council to maintain that perception.

So while economics may be relevant to politics and business, it's not so relevant to the other humanities. Just like meteorology is relevant to daily life, but it's not as relevant to physics as physics is to meteorology.

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Money Hungry

Economists are just a bunch of profit seekers who have no care for actually understanding who people are. At least that's what most of the social sciences seem to think.

PhD Student

My guess is at least part of this effect is reciprocity. Economists are famously bad when it comes to citing relevant research from the other social sciences. And I am not even talking about humanistic research: experiments from social psychology and statistical work from sociology are often ignored when economists do related (or even nearly identical) work. There is a widely held perception in the other social sciences that economists are, at best, disinterested in having interdisciplinary conversations--or, at worst, regularly tolerate cross-disciplinary plagiarism. My guess is that a culture of arrogance is the ultimate cause.

David

Dylan is 100% right. Those aren't philosophers. They're Post-Modern "theorists" and lazy thinkers, loved more in English departments than in good Philosophy departments. Even the serious analytical philosophers on that list, viz. Wittgenstein, get cited often because pseudo-philosophers are very fond of misinterpreting their works, not because of what they actually argued. What this tells me is that rigorous logical reasoning is just too hard and unsexy for most people.

Michael Folks

I think the big problem is that economics can often be intensely mathematical. Von Neumann, for example, was a physicist. His work was written in the language of probability, statistics and game theory.

The truth is, many people go into humanities specifically because they're NOT any good at math. Mathematical incompetance renders large bodies of modern economic thought inaccessible to many humanities oriented individuals, be they left-wing or right wing.

Mike

The humanities that I read are all descriptive - this is what this is like here in this location, or at this time period - and leave a lot of room of conclusions and tie-ins to me; whereas a lot of economics that seems to come across as prescriptive - do this for the future.

That may count, partially, as why Freakonomics exploded out so much in the popular market, because SL & SD explained the world as it existed. It is also why, I have to admit, like the first one better than the second, as the second took a distinctly prescriptive bent.

Ray

Maybe it has to do with the fact that most books written by economists are often not very entertaining to read. Take Gary Becker for example. Great economist, very influential, but if I want to go to sleep early I just need to read 5 pages of one of his papers or books.

Eric Fawkes

I agree that the main problem is mathematics. Contemporary economic papers contain 2 or 3 cohesive paragraphs and 20 pages of mathematics/statistics. Many people in the humanities and some other social sciences do not have a strong basis in mathematics, so they get very little out of our work. If they cannot understand our papers, they cannot be expected to use and cite them.

Economics PhD student

I hate to say this, but MOST economics students have never touched any of the historically important books on economics. That said, how would you expect people like Marshall to be cited, when, the "new school" has been to taught to cite only Econometrica, AER and JPE? Even economists are not citing these books. Aside from econ 101 books, I feel like most economic books are geared towards graduate students or researchers wishing to catch up on a particular topic.

Books about/on economics serve a different purpose than say a book on philosophy: they are (in my opinion) often written more as guides to frontier research. With that in mind, I think book citations is the wrong metric to gauge whether economists matter. A book on economics will never make the Thompson list simply be because there are so many of them, and they become outdated very fast. More often than not, books in our area contain little (or no) new research... only slightly watered down versions/results of models/regressions that an advanced undergraduate or junior PhD student can understand. For example, most of us would probably agree that Greene, SLP, and Mas-Collel are very influential, even though they will rarely be cited in an academic journal publication. Because these books teach the future economists the foundations of the art, future policies and business practices may be subtley influenced by these authors. In my opinion, seeing how economists have influenced the world is a better metric than the Reuters Honour Roll. Of course, this will be hard to determine, given the subjectivity of identifying "influence".

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Tom

Economists generally do not cite the other social sciences, thus their contribution is not visible in these disciplines as socilogists do not see how the econ paper relates to their work. An example comes to mind from a recent marketing conference where two econ PhD students were excitedly talking about finding that quality differences between products influence buying behavior (no kidding) woefully unaware of the very very extensive literature on this in marketing. They were thus not contributing to the discussion on the topic (well, maybe at an econ conference the reception of this paper would have been different?).

Robyn Ann Goldstein

Dear Bill and Erich;

As I have seen it, the humanities and the sciences share in common at least 4 problems. What then is the difference. There is a real fine continual line of one difference between them. So if, as you Eric indicate, the main problem is Mathematics, that is because the relatively dichotomous aspect of Mathematics has, as yet, not been clearly grasped. My daughter has this problem with Math. She intuitively understands it better than her teachers and is not being taught Mathematics in a way that is consistent with her own latent understanding of it. The result- despite her great musical ear, she suffers from "cognitive consonance" and is a lousy math test taker. I would not be surprized if Einstein suffered from the same problem as a child.

Turboweevel

I think the reason they're not "influential" is because they contain something most people in the social sciences are deathly afraid of: Math. It's all fun and games until you write down something like max U(x,y) s.t. m=px.x+py.y and their eyes glaze over. You can try and explain economics using purely intuition but unless you go and show the mathematical side it's, at best, incomplete and vague. To people without a mathematical background economics is arcane and obscure. And it's something they associate to stress and discomfort because of the constant news of recessions, depressions and the general end of the world.

The reason economics isn't influential on humanities is because it speaks a language the other social sciences don't.

charles

Economics text isn't seriously written for an audience of any significance. It's a subject written into the void within which live a few strange and maladjusted creatures. Perhaps the success of FON and SPRFON will highlight the issue. When it's specifically targeted to a particular set, or set of sets, you'll see movement. I'd start by incorporating sexy vampires, a temperate rain forest, and maybe some wolves, targeting the 12 year old girl set. What's interesting today will be cited tomorrow.

Emprical IO

Many of the top cited authors on that list have written "classics" so to speak. Moreover, a "classic" book in philosophy has as much relevance today (in the academic community), as it did when it was first released (much like in mathematics, Gauss and Riemann are still king and queen).

"Classics" in economics are not relevant to new research; not necessarily because they do not contain enough math, but because the economy has changed a lot. For example, internet may make spatial competition models a la Hotelling (another important economist) less relevant, as transaction costs associated with trade approach zero. Another example is the revival of Keynes in recent years due to the recession.

Unless we lose faith in modern economics, there is no reason for us to throw away the new knowledge in place of "classics." Even though every economic model is some variant of Supply=Demand (ie. X marks the spot), you don't see these papers citing Smith and Marshall... that would be silly.

Most researchers in many fields are overwhelmed with the amount of "new" research that is generated... so adopting a Markovian research process is not only efficient, but necessary. Moreover, learning with limited memory is sometimes better at uncovering the "truth."

A side note: economists rarely cite dead (or very old) "influential" authors for one simple reason... they are unlikely to be editors of journals. Citing Keynes will not increase the probability of acceptance at a journal, whereas citing authors of "hot" and unpublished working papers will. Perhaps researchers in the allied fields are not as "strategic" and cite prudently.

My conclusion: the list by Reuters is interesting, but not important. There isn't a strong correlation between real world influence and the number of citations. For example, communist China today is more influenced by the principles of Smith than Marx, even though Marx made the list.

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