Monday, November 30, 2009

How to make economics confusing enough to get published

In an article called "Confessions of an Economist: Writing to Impress Rather than to Inform" (PDF), economics professor David R. Hakes tells this story about academia's perverse bias in favor of inscrutability (via):

A colleague presented a fairly complex paper on how firms might use warranties to extract rent from certain users of their products. No one in the audience seemed to follow the argument. Because I found the argument to be perfectly clear, I repeatedly defended the author and I was able to bring the audience to an understanding of the paper. The author was so pleased that I was able to understand his work and explain it to others that he asked me if I was willing to coauthor the paper with him. I said I would be delighted.

We managed to reduce the equations in the paper to six. At this stage the paper was perfectly clear and was written at a level so that it could reach a broad audience. When we submitted the paper to risk, uncertainty, and insurance journals, the referees responded that the results were self-evident. After some degree of frustration, my coauthor suggested that the problem with the paper might be that we had made the argument too easy to follow, and thus referees and editors were not sufficiently impressed. He said that he could make the paper more impressive by generalizing the model. While making the same point as the original paper, the new paper would be more mathematically elegant, and it would become absolutely impenetrable to most readers. The resulting paper had fifteen equations, two propositions and proofs, dozens of additional mathematical expressions, and a mathematical appendix containing nineteen equations and even more mathematical expressions. I personally could no longer understand the paper and I could not possibly present the paper alone.

The paper was published in the first journal to which we submitted. . . . While the audience for the original version of the paper was broad, the audience for the published version of the paper has been reduced to a very narrow set of specialists and mathematicians. Even for mathematicians, . . . the time and effort necessary to read the paper may exceed the benefits received from reading it. I am now part of the conspiracy to intentionally make simple ideas obscure and complex.
Alas, although he says in the article's conclusion that he'll try to "write to inform rather than to impress," he admits he'll still occasionally succumb to the professional norm of obfuscation:
If in the future a referee or an editor suggests that I "generalize the model" or "make the model dynamic" when I feel that the change is an unnecessary complication which will likely cloud the issue rather than illuminate it, I will probably do as they requested rather than fight for clarity.