modeling beauty

Thu Jan 6 06:26:20 PST 2000

At 12:22 AM 1/5/00 -0500, Doug wrote:
>Carrol Cox wrote:
>>Would it be correct to say that when economists say A varies
>>directly as B (or some similar proposition) they usually do not
>>have the slightest idea as to whether the correspondence is
>>significant or utterly trivial??? Or if it is significant, it is unknown
>Generally they let neoclassical theory guide them. Posit some
>relation from theory, and then farm the data to prove it.
I've been looking through these abstracts (I do have better things to do, but don't want to do them) and they do seem to exhibit the typology of "bollocks economics" papers which I identified in the days when my daily existence depended on such things:

1. "Joke" papers. The one which Doug referred to as "Modelling Art" falls into this category. What these are all about is that an economist wants to write a paper about statistical or theoretical methodology, but due to imperfections in the soul-removing process, chooses a whimsical non-economic subject to apply the method to. At the bottom of the abstract for :

"A Portrait of the Artist as a Young, Middle-Aged, and Elderly



University of Michigan


Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System

Division of Monetary Affairs "

we find this para.:

"Our analysis uses both polynomial fits, as well as multiple

structure change analysis to deduce the best fits by piecewise

linear splines."

which to me looks like a fairly new and v. hairy curve-fitting method In other words, this is a paper about statistical methodology, which the authors have tried to leaven by using art prices as the dataset rather than bond yields (given the second author, I'd guess their real interest is yield curve modelling).

2. "Pointless use of linear regression" papers.

Doug's "Modelling Beauty" would be one of these. These papers are part of the managerial pathology of the profession -- someone who should have better things to do is goofing off. What's clearly happened in:

""Dress For Success -- Does Primping Pay?"


University of Texas at Austin

Department of Economics

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)


Australian National University


Chinese University of Hong Kong

Department of Economics "

is that three people have met at a conference. In conversation, they discover that one of them has a dataset, so they decide to do a paper on it. They don't really know much about the subject area, and they don't really want to learn. All they want is another working paper on the CV, and hope nobody looks too closely at it. My guess would be that Junsen Zhang had the "unique survey" data, and that Xin Meng introduced him to Daniel Hammermesh because he reckoned that between them, they could get it published by the NBER. A complete waste of everybody's time, but these papers tend to show that not much time has been spent on them.

I think I met a guy called Junsen Zhang who was an economist, but I don't think he'd have got mixed up in this kind of thing.

[my "analysis of stalking" was meant as a satire on this kind of paper]

3. "Mad Breckeresque overextensions of rational choice theory" papers

These are just completely fucking barking mad.

Nine times out of ten, they're from Virginia (notorious haunt of Breckerites) -- even Chicago has been all but laughed out of this game. Or George Mason at a pinch, if they have a very strong Austrian free-market

flavour. Let's see:

"A Good Man is Hard to Find: Marriage as an Institution"


Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University

Department of Economics "

Told you so. Basically, someone not very bright has read a book by Brecker and gone out into the world to show that, even though we don't think we're rational utility maximisers, we are really. Often cases of Adorno's authoritarian personality type, you can usually read between the lines where they're coming from, all "And so we can see that society is right to levy a penalty on non-virgins, to raise the cost of female promiscuity with a general improvment in the welfare of children". Hateful, dreadful people.

Finally, there's another type that's sort of illustrated by "Gaming Seattle",

but that paper just doesn't go far enough to be a representative example.

4. "Scary mathematical game theory papers on woefully misconceived subjects"

There are only two types of people in the world producing this kind of paper 1. High-foreheaded types at Californian universities (Berkely is the worst). 2. Chinese emigrants with degrees in Physics from Beijing Uni, doing econ PhDs at Western universities.

The reason for this is the level of maths involved in producing one -- you either have to feel no pain in reading it (type 2) or actively enjoy pain (type 1). This is the kind of person Vikram Seth was talking about (now I come to think about it, there are a few Indian mathematicians in the game too, although they tend more to scary models of financial markets).

The name of the game is that any outcome can be presented as the optimal point of a utility function, so long as that function is sufficiently complicated. So wheel out yer Fourier transforms, PDEs, flexible bounds, topological proofs and matrices, matrices, matrices. Sooner or later, you will have travelled from a long list of amazingly debatable premises, to a conclusion which nobody had ever been disposed to doubt in the first place (like, for example, civil servants don't like to admit they are wrong), and filled up a few gigabytes with MATLAB files. A paper of sufficient quality in this field is impossible to typeset, let alone read.


In the same general area (god, do I really not want to read German accounts so much?), Wojtek wrote:

>It is useful to view this neoclassical tripe as a case of 'scientific
>research programme' (Imre Lakatos, _Methodology of scientific research
>programme_, Cambridge U Press, 1992) which in essence treats scientific
>theories as institutions defended by their supporters against obliteration
>in the face of contradicting evidence. Contrary to Popperian
>falsificationism claiming that theories are rejected as soon as bone fide
>attempts to falsify them suceed, Lakatos claims that it ain't so - as any
>other social institution, theories live the lives of their own, defended
>against empirical refutation by those who have personal stakes in them.

I think that a fair few members of the profession would agree with you there. Anyone insisting on the Popperian falsifiability of economic theories is in all likelihood guilty of having studied maths or natural sciences.

>Two main mechanisms of such a defence are:

>- negative heuristic whose role is to delineate an "immune to refutation'
>core of a theory by steering inquiries away from those paths that may
>challenge that core; in case of nc econ, such a core is the behavioral
>model based on self-interest and rationality (i.e. utility maximization)
>and the more tacit assumption about the linear nature of the utility
>function. Both assumption can be challenged by sociology and cognitive
>sciences which suggest alternative behavioral models (e.g. based on
>institutionalized rules and expectations rather than utility maximization)
>and non-linear, non-additive nature of human information processing
>(including cost - benefit analysis) i.e. using cognitive schemata or
>"filters" that altogether ignore certain features or "data" while
>emphasizing others - instead of balancing them in a linear regression-like
>fashion. The nc econ simply assumes its behavioral model as valid and
>ignores all other alternatives, often by disparagingly calling them

Yes, absolutely, although Shiller at Yale is very good on this sort of thing There is a whole "behavioural finance" trend in financial econ. which has taken the failure of stock market efficiency as an excuse to return to some of these kind of models -- I think there's a link to Shiller from the lbo website.

>Another analogy to explain the nc econ behavior is religious expansionism,
>such as catholicism. The catholic church is known for its practices of
>incorporating elements of religious beliefs of colonized peoples into its
>own frame of reference - thus we have a germanic tree symbolizing x-mas,
>egg (pagan symbol of fertility) symbolizing easter, or inca's cult of the
>ancestors transforemd into the cult of catholic saints. This is
>intellectual imperialism par excellence. NC econ professors want to
>colonize the domain of other social science to sap support for their own
>religion - just as the roman catholic clergy colonized other religious
>systems by selective incorporating their elements into their own belief

I don't think this is peculiar to nc econ -- you can name plenty of marxists, austrianists, etc who do just the same sort of thing.

>BTW, debating economists, especialy of the nc variety, is
>counterproductive, because they do not recognize rationality of others,
>only of their own. Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically
>presumed 'non-rational' and thus unworthy of responding (cf. Brad DeLong's
>nonresponses to inconvenient questions on this list).

Again unfair, unless you'd agree that turn about is fair play on this one. (In general -- that wasn't meant as a personal remark)

>When I hear "nc economics," I ignite by BiC. (no apologies to hanns johst)


Unless you object, I'll forward your piece on to a few pals who you'd consider particularly egregious. It makes some points which I've been trying to make, but much better.



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