Saturday, 30 November 2013

Teach the Debate!

Oh but Chris Auld is a mischief-maker.

The Guardian has been running a series of half-baked critiques of economics. While economists of left and right recognize them as humbug, demand for humbug remains as strong as ever.

Chris Auld responds by recasting an essay by biologists critical of the idea that schools should "teach the controversy" about intelligent design:
What is wrong with the notion that students should acquire the skills of critical thinking by grappling with the controversies surrounding mainstream economic theory? I argue, first, that materials offered by opponents of mainstream economics are actually designed to misinform and obfuscate the real controversies in economics. Educational materials offered to encourage “critical thinking” consist mainly of “evidence against” mainstream economics — a “catalogue” of specific cases for which economic theory has presumably failed to provide a complete or compelling explanation.

Second, I argue that opponents of mainstream economics confuse the source of economic controversies in two important ways. The first is semantic; Mainstream economics is incorrectly equated with Neoclassical economics, which in turn is incorrectly equated with all modern economic theory. Materials from the Guardian, for example, typically trumpet the shortcomings of neoclassical theory—conveniently ignoring more than a century of research that has expanded, modified, and some cases, even replaced strictly “neoclassical” ideas about economics.
He continues, but you can head there to read the whole thing. Auld concludes:
The gist of the article is that creationists commonly attack introductory biology textbooks on highly questionable and ideologically-motivated grounds, pounce on errors or outdated information in such textbooks, and demand that the obscure and/or scientifically invalid theories which conform to their religious ideology be taught along with mainstream biology.

I do not mean to imply that economic theory is as well-understood as the fact that evolution occurred (although evolutionary theory—modeling how evolution actually occurred—is subject to many of the same limitations as economic theory, and is often based on strikingly similar formalisms). But I do think that the criticism of undergraduate education in economics offered by the Guardian parallels in form and intent attacks by creationists on introductory education in biology: they are thinly-veiled attacks on the discipline itself rather than course content, and they are offered by people with no real understanding of the actual scientific issues on misguided ideological grounds. The only substantive difference is in one case the ideology is religious and in the other it’s political.

There are actually problems with undergraduate education in economics. The point of an academic, as opposed to a professional, degree is to train students to understand and perhaps, if they continue their studies, to contribute to the research literature. Judged relative to that goal, the current curriculum is not sufficiently mathematical and places far too much emphasis on theory relative to empirics, amongst other problems. Some long-standing core material (e.g, the Marshallian theory of the firm) could be ditched to make space to cover more recent theoretical developments and empirical results and methods. This will happen over time, and hopefully we can prompt it along.

But the Guardian and its fellow travellers have quite a different set of reform criteria. Their criteria are political, not scientific. No, we don’t need more courses in Marxian economics, for example. Marxian economics comprises zero percent (give or take) of the academic literature, and thus under the criterion above for academic degrees, even if one thought Marxian approaches superior it would be irresponsible to replace large portions of the curriculum with Marxian theory. It would also be infeasible, as there are zero Marxian economists in the vast majority of economics departments.
I note the difference between academic and professional degrees: it is increasingly difficult to provide academic training in economics in New Zealand. We've been holding the line at Canterbury, keeping the core math theory in our three year undergraduate degree so we can focus on more interesting applications at Honours level rather than using the Honours year to teach the math they missed at undergrad.

I'll further note Auld's rather trenchant critique of "teach the controversy" in case there's suggestion that we need to re-do our undergraduate programmes to take account of the Guardian/Manchester critique.


  1. I'll take the opportunity to link (again?) to this excellent sociological self-parody (although it may be funnier for sociologists than it is for economists):

  2. As an economist, I find this site almost indistinguishable from actual sociology. I'm having a hard time deciding what conclusions I should draw from that.

  3. Heh. Here's someone who actually wrote a critique:

  4. Thanks for the remarks, Eric. On the academic v professional degree issue: many of the UK commentators on all sides of the debate talk as if the purpose of an undergrad degree is to take a "city job" as an economist.

    I find that weird. I assume they're referring to people taking their BAs in econ and working in London's finance sector (or perhaps they mean government jobs? or both?) But in my experience it's very rare for employers looking for economic analysts to hire people with only undergrad degrees, and I'd be surprised if the situation were different in the UK. One needs at least a master's, and very preferably a PhD, to actually be an economist.

    But this creates difficulties for undergrad teaching. We must teach the undergrad program as a prelude to a graduate degree, both because that is the mandate of undergrad academic degrees and because, if we do not, our students who do go on to grad school will not be prepared. But that also means that the undergrads who do not go to grad school---a substantial majority---get exposed to all sorts of relatively technical apparatus which they will neither use nor understand at anything beyond a shallow level. This tension is part of the reason, I think, that the "post-autistic" and post-crash students' movements exist.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure what an attempt at a professional version of an undergrad degree in economics would look like. Reducing the technical demands in coursework would make people who do terminal undergrad degrees less, not more, competent to actually do economic analysis. We could offer a bunch of courses in quasi- or non-economic, but pragmatic, topics like accounting, management, writing skills, basic computing, and basic finance, but now I'm describing an undergrad degree in commerce, not economics.

    Anecdotally, when I first arrived at Calgary there was a professional Masters degree in econ---students could choose a "Masters in Economics (MEc)" stream, which was the same as standard MA except they didn't have to take the core courses. It was supposed to compete with MBA programs. This never worked, even at the graduate level, as you need the core courses in general and to understand the field courses, and because the program attracted weak students. The degree was scrapped.

    The bottom line is that if one actually wants to be an economist, they'll need a graduate degree. If they're doing an undergrad degree in economics and have no plans to go on to grad school in econ, they'll be learning a bunch of seemingly esoteric concepts and math and, sorry UK students, doing problem sets rather than pontificating on big think questions (

  5. yes indeed Mr Eric, If you fail to hold the critical thinking line here in NZ,
    what will become of you in Monatoba. Hold fast dude.

  6. Chris, I agree with you in part, but I think the problem is not so much the different needs of students who carry on to grad school and those who don't but rather the different abilities between the two groups. Consider the thought experiment of a cohort of undergraduate students capable of continuing on to doctoral study in economics, half of whom will do so and half of whom will not. How would you teach the two groups differently. I wouldn't make any difference at all. I would want the non-continuing students to understand the two welfare theorems and have a sense of how to prove them (not formally, but intuitively) in order to know how to use them as a guide to critical thinking. I would want them to understand the Gauss-Markov theorem and how to prove it (again, not necessarily formally), to understand the power and the limitations of inferring structural relationships from non-experimental data. Do do this, I would want a fair amount of maths in my curriculum, again, not as a means to theorem proving, but as the easiest language to use. And for those going on, I would want to spending just as much time as for the non-continuers emphasising the steps from formal results in models and statistically significant regression coefficients to thinking critically about the messy real world, so that they can keep their feet on the ground at graduate school.

    But, we don't do this. Partly it is because lazy professors just teach theorems as an end rather than a means, but mostly it is because the non-continuers don't have the technical skills to use maths as a language, but regrettably that also means a limited capacity to pontificate on big think questions, and, at its core, I suspect that is the frustration that truly lies behind the post-autistic and post-crash movements.