Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Through Rose Colored Glasses

In the article on climate science that I discussed in my two previous posts, William Nordhaus writes:
I believe the opposite of what the sixteen claim to be true: dissident voices and new theories are encouraged because they are critical to sharpening our analysis.
I have no expertise in climate science but I have spent my life in academia. To judge by my experience, he is describing how it should work but not how it does work.

Academics have three ways of gaining income and status in their profession. One is by being hired by a university, preferably a top university, preferably with tenure. A second is by publishing articles in journals, preferably top journals. A third is by publishing original work that the rest of their profession finds convincing. What are the implications for each of being a dissident, someone who rejects the current orthodoxy in one's field?

Hiring and promotion decisions are made by the senior faculty members, who mostly subscribe to the orthodoxy—that, after all, is what it means for a view to be orthodoxy. From the standpoint of the people deciding the dissident's fate, he is someone who has rejected truth in favor of error—not a job qualification. If sufficiently able he may overcome that handicap by persuading them that he is brilliant, technically able, unusually hard working. But it will not be easy.

Much the same applies to the second route to success. The articles he submits will be reviewed by other people in his field. They too are likely to subscribe to the orthodoxy he rejects. Here again, the situation is not hopeless. If an article is sufficiently brilliant, the reviewer may conclude that it is worth publishing even if wrong. He may even be convinced that it is right. But that is not the way to bet. Most of us are more open minded in theory than in practice.

It is only with regard to the third route that being a dissident can be an advantage. Work that supports what everyone else already believes may get you hired and published, but work that offers convincing arguments against the accepted view and for an alternative attracts more attention, not all of it hostile. It may  make you the leader of a new school of thought within your field. It may even win you a Nobel prize.

In order to achieve that sort of success, however, you have to get your work published. It also helps if you are offering your arguments from the pulpit provided by a tenured position at a top university. Those are conditions that the dissident may have trouble satisfying. I am not arguing that new views can never replace old—obviously they sometimes do. But the situation as I have observed it is the precise opposite of the rosy picture offered by Nordhaus.

So much for theory—what about evidence? 

In an earlier post, I offered an example of how dissident views are treated in practice, a prominent university that pushed out three different academics, two of them economists, because of their unconventional views—views for which all three later received Nobel prizes. In the case of the economists we know it was deliberate because the document saying so, written by the department chairman responsible, was carelessly passed on to a later chairman with different views.

For a second piece of evidence, I offer a story. It comes from Leo Rosten, an author who was a friend of my parents. It probably dates from sometime in the late fifties or early sixties.

One one occasion, Leo asked an MIT economist about minimum wage laws and got the conventional answer—that they reduce employment opportunities for unskilled workers by pushing up the cost of hiring them. He asked if that was the view of most economists and was told that it was. He asked why, in that case, economists did not make an effort to inform the public of the problem.

The answer:

"I guess we're afraid of sounding as if we agree with Milton Friedman."

I cannot prove that the story is true, but after fifty some years in academia from freshman on it strikes me as a good deal more plausible than Professor Nordhaus' rosy view.


Paul Power said...


There is some evidence to support your view. This appeared very recently https://theconversation.com/is-misinformation-about-the-climate-criminally-negligent-23111
"When it comes to global warming, much of the public remains in denial about a set of facts that the majority of scientists clearly agree on. With such high stakes, an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent." etc, from an "Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology ".

Anonymous said...

"I guess we're afraid of sounding as if we agree with Milton Friedman."

I would take that as one huge complement.

brendan said...

Steven Pinker's the Blank Slate is the highest octane antidote to academic idealism that I've read. Particularly since laymen can grasp human-nature topics more easily than econ ones. Laymen don't really have opinions on the minimum wage; they do on nature/nurture/jealousy/envy, etc. And Joe Dirt 100 IQ plumber understood people better than the mid 20th century Harvard social scientist.


I think the most reductionist divide between the left and right is their level of trust in the academic establishment.

August said...

After reading Celia Green for a few years, I just finally developed the assumption that higher education is now designed to screen people like me out rather than putting us into research positions. I realized global warming was inaccurate when I was fifteen- does anyone really think I had a legitimate chance to get into climatology?

sconzey said...

This explains why within a University there is a single orthodoxy, but it doesn't explain why all Universities have the same orthodoxy on all major aspects of all major issues.

What one would expect is that the dissident scientists would gang together and found their own research groups with their own journals. Eventually one orthodoxy comes to dominate one University, a different orthodoxy another. Harvard takes string theory; Yale takes quantum gravity. Enemy journals would be eagerly scrutinised, with every scientific shortcoming vivisected in excruciating detail, the offending scientists humiliated before their peers and the world. Incredible and elaborate pranks are played at conferences.

This doesn't happen. Why not?

August said...

When the centralized funding runs out, the centralized thinking will stop too. Innovation was probably higher in Victorian times, for, in addition to being smarter, there were more independent fortunes to be spent on wildly dissimilar ideas.

David Friedman said...

Sconzey: To some extend what you describe does happen. I like to claim that in every field there are two schools—the orthodoxy and the Chicago School. What the difference is varies from field to field, but the University of Chicago tends to be a home for the dissidents. There are other examples—I think U. Mass Amherst has long been a Marxist holdout—but Chicago is the one I know best.

Perhaps not accidentally, Chicago also has, I think, the record for Nobel prizes won by its faculty.

You also get a similar pattern sometime with Journals.

I was considering cases where the orthodoxy is sufficiently dominant to sharply reduce opportunities for dissidents.

Mark Bahner said...

"This explains why within a University there is a single orthodoxy, but it doesn't explain why all Universities have the same orthodoxy..."

I think I can explain why all universities have the same orthodoxy on climate change. The federal government funds most climate change research at universities. To convince the federal government that climate change is not a problem would be to convince the government to stop funding climate change research.

So even if one "won," one would lose. (Three ones in a row...a new record.)

David Friedman said...

"Three ones in a row...a new record"

I doubt it. I can give you a sentence with six "ands" in a row.

Perry E. Metzger said...

A pure aside:

"second is by publishing articles in journals, preferably top journals" -- In Computer Science, for reasons that have mostly to do with the speed that the field evolves at, publishing in the proceedings of top conferences is often much more prestigious than top journals.

Again, this is a pure aside, and has nothing to do with your overall point.

Tibor said...

I wonder if there is such a thing as orthodoxy in mathematics. So far I have not noticed such a thing, but I am very new to academic research. There seem to be some arguments about some more applied parts such as statistics. For example Bayesian vs. frequentist approaches...although most people probably agree that the best thing is to use both. I read an article about the futility of using burn-in in markov chain monte carlo algorithms...but it was hardly anything close to what you see in other fields.

My guess is that maths, living outside of the real world and being the only field where you can actually prove your results, is not one where opposing schools of thought often arise. But maybe I am wrong. Does anyone have any counterexamples?

Jim Rose said...

Richard Tol has pointed out that maybe 20 or so academic economists work on climate change. Many of the key survey papers are written by the same few people.

The reasons were that inter-disciplinary works is looked down on in the economics profession and government agencies do not like what economic research says so they pre-emptively do not fund it.

It seems to me that working in the area is risky and unpleasant.

David Card stopped working on the minimum wage because people were nasty to him and he lost friends.

David Friedman said...

Jim: Do you have a cite for your comment on Card?

Anonymous said...

11 hads in a row.....

Troy Camplin said...

This has been my experience as well. Even though the way universities teach writing is a dismal failure, everyone teaches it the same way, and if you don't they won't hire you -- and if they do accidentally hire you, they will get rid of you as soon as possible. And it doesn't matter one bit if your students can write better at the end of your class or not. The only thing that matters is that you are teaching writing the same exact way as everyone else.

Coincidentally, this is also why you won't typically find non-Marxist economics, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, etc. among literary theorists within English departments, either.

Universities are among the most conservative -- in the worst sense possible -- places on earth.

Marcel said...

What one would expect is that the dissident scientists would gang together and found their own research groups with their own journals.

I know one (large) group based on the idea that mainstream astronomy is wrong - google "Electric Universe". I know several (large) groups that study intelligent design. So?

As Mark Bahner pointed out, since the orthodoxy gets funded by the federal government and the dissidents do not, the orthodoxy stays mainstream.

Jim Rose said...

david, see http://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications_papers/pub_display.cfm?id=3190&

"I've subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons.

First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed.

They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole."

David Friedman said...

Jim: Thanks. Interesting interview. A quote from it is the new quote of the month for my web page.

Jim Rose said...

David, when Simon Chapple in 2000 wrote “Māori Socio-Economic Disparity”, which showed that disadvantage in New Zealand is more closely tied to age, marital status, education, skills, and geographic location than it is to ethnicity, broadly conceived:

• He was summoned before the Māori affairs committee of parliament to defend his paper! His boss at the ministry of social policy went along with him to defend his wrote to write the paper he wrote while employed as senior analyst at the department of labour.

• The head of the Māori affairs Ministry accused Simon of breaching the public services code of conduct.

• Colleagues at his new job at the ministry of social policy circulated a petition asking that he be sacked.

There was an editorial in the Dominion Post and the minister attacked him and the paper as well.
See https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj18/ethnicity-based-research-and-politics18-pages18-30.html for more information and a comparison with the similar response to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: A Case for National Action in 1965.

I started working on labour economics in 2007 in New Zealand. We meet once over a sparsely catered once at the New Zealand Treasury a few years before that.

I found that the labour economics of Māori was very narrowly written and stayed well clear of the minefield that Simon braved about how ethnicity does not matter much to social disadvantage.

The only two subsequent papers on the topic spent the last two pages of their paper apologising and explaining why their finding from a longitudinal study that ethnicity did not matter to social disadvantage might be wrong.

David Friedman said...

It occurs to me that another example is at the start of Warfare Before Civilization, an interesting book.

The author, an archaeologist, proposed studies of the earliest European agricultural settlements, which were walled villages. His initial grant proposal took it for granted that the walls were for defense. It was rejected—because orthodoxy at the time was that primitive people were peaceful.

He rewrote it without that assumption, got funded, did the work. Oddly enough, arrow heads tended to be most common just outside the wall, especially by the entrance.