A dalliance with the dismal scientists of WikiProject Economics
This week, we interviewed the outspoken members of WikiProject Economics. The project was created when WikiProject Business and Economics split in February 2007, also resulting in the creation of the sister project WikiProject Business. WikiProject Economics is home to 12 pieces of featured material, 2 A-class articles, and 47 Good Articles. Our interviewees this week were Kiefer.Wolfowitz, Fifelfoo, and Protonk.
What motivated you to join WikiProject Economics? Do you have any academic degrees or work experience in economics?
- Fifelfoo: The amazing economic history article, Economy of England in the Middle Ages made me interested in WikiProject Economics. Academically, I come from a labour history and Marxist political economy background so I felt I could contribute in some areas where I have a little expertise.
- Kiefer.Wolfowitz: Ronald Reagan and Paul Volcker's 1980s recession impressed upon me the importance of economics, and motivated me to study its language, mathematics and statistics. Professionally, I am a statistician and mathematical scientist interested in optimization; economics remains an interest.
- On Wikipedia, my economics contributions have been to mathematical economics, particularly convexity and non-convexity: My best article, the Shapley–Folkman lemma, explains why the concept of economic equilibria is useful even when the simplifying assumptions of undergraduate economics are replaced by more realistic assumptions; it should be ready for FA nomination soon. Another topic is game-theoretic voting, especially the Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem and Robin Farquharson. Finally, I work on biographies of economists: Jacques M. Drèze, Leonid Kantorovich, and (with David Eppstein) Graciela Chichilnisky and Andreu Mas-Collel
- Protonk: I started editing articles on crises: Tulipmania, Panic of 1907, LTCM related articles. Those articles are great because they combine interesting historical tidbits with economic theory. We can talk about the Panic of 1907 as a fixed event in the past but we can also point to more current research on the causes and impact of certain events in the banking sector and government. Tulipmania was especially intriguing because our current folk understanding of what happened may not actually comport with the historical record. Unlike Kiefer Wolfowitz I don't have a great deal of mathematical aptitude so I had to focus on historical events, figures and history of economic thought. I have a BA (and progressing through an MA) in Economics but for many of the articles I don't think my experience or degrees are necessary for contributing meaningfully to the articles.
The terminology and concepts behind economics can be overwhelming to a layperson. How do you approach writing or rewriting articles that are sufficiently detailed but can be understood by readers who do not have prior knowledge of the subject? What role does the project play in helping non-experts write articles about economics?
- Kiefer.Wolfowitz: The premise of this question seems wrong-headed. Economic principles are needed to understand the newspaper as well as other disciplines. How does one make sense of the Great Depression or the contemporary financial crisis without an understanding of effective demand and other concepts from macroeconomics? Economic models that describe how much insurance we purchase also describe how much time an alligator devotes to protecting its eggs (versus foraging for food).
- To understand supply and demand curves requires only junior-high school mathematics. What is needed is the will to learn and the discipline to read and to think.
- The intellectually impoverished can find amusement elsewhere on Wikipedia.
- Fifelfoo: Much of political economy is accessible to the lay person. Adam Smith, Ricardo, Karl Marx, Veblen and the Austrian school of economics all wrote in prose, with comprehensible anecdotes. In addition, economic history reads much like normal history! Our economic history articles could do with love and improvement, and users need similar apparatus to writing history articles: a willingness to read books and synthesise what the scholars say.
- Protonk: I'll disagree with my esteemed colleagues here on this subject. While writing Mathematical economics, I effectively hit a wall by the 1930s. Substantively summarizing the progress of mathematical econ. in the 20th century is basically impossible without a good working understanding of topology and set theory. Obviously what constitutes a "working understanding" may vary for different people and mathematical economics is a rather rarefied subject, but it is difficult to do justice to the subject without a good understanding of the underlying math. It is nearly impossible to make the math tractable for a layperson without an exceptional understanding--though this is true for any technical discipline. These issues crop up in areas where econometrics and statistics intersect. Making an article on the normal distribution useful, true and comprehensive for a practitioner will almost assuredly make it incomprehensible to a layperson unless a simple explanation is relegated to one section or subsection.
Charts and diagrams are often used to illustrate articles about economic concepts. How easily can someone contribute graphics like these? How can new contributors find articles that need charts or diagrams? Are there any photographic images that would be appropriate in economics articles?
- Fifelfoo: One problem with contributing diagrams and charts is to avoid original research. In areas of macro-economics and micro-economics charts and diagrams would be very helpful. Negotiating what the "facts" are to be illustrated on the talk page, or with the project helps. In addition, users who can edit LaTeX math codes on Wikipedia could supply a great deal of help, both to "mainstream" economics, and to political economy areas like Marxism where circuits of capital and reproduction schema need illustration.
- Protonk: Problems with original research exist with any subject area when talking about illustrations. What we really need is a reliable, open source sketching system for simple economics diagrams which can output both images (preferably SVGs) and source code. the source code matters because updating or editing graphs is difficult without basically recreating them. The graphics capability of R fits the bill for this but an economist unfamiliar with R would hit a steep learning curve well before being able to produce meaningful graphs and charts. There are a number of proprietary products out there (e.g. Excel and Gapminder) but those may be unavailable to all contributors or simple static image export under a free license may be impossible.
- Further complicating this is the history of limited data disclosure in economics publications. Some of the big journals are slowly turning around on this front but merely recreating a graph or chart from a paper (rather than scanning the image and uploading it as a fair use file, which will often not meet our non-free content criteria) is a challenge without access to the original data.
There are four Wikipedia books that fall under the scope of WikiProject Economics: Economics, Macroeconomic Theory, the Federal Reserve System, and World Trade. Have you contributed to any of these books? What are your feelings on the future of Wikipedia books?
- Protonk: I have pretty much zero interest in Wikipedia books with the exception of using the books interface as a handy PDF exporting tool.
What are the project's most pressing needs? How can a new contributor help today?
- Kiefer.Wolfowitz: Contributors should have passed M.A. sequences in mathematics, microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics, so that they know what they are talking about.
- Economics suffers from POV-pushing, obviously by fringe/"heterodox schools" (e.g. Austrian economics, Marxist economics), zombie-lands of the intellectually dead; unfortunately, these topics are often emphasized in the (weak) literature of the history of political economy, which is viewed with contempt by most professional economists. Some Marxist models, e.g. by Richard M. Goodwin. or Perry Mehrling, remain interesting, in particularly for understanding that investment is driven by expected profits and that excessive wage demands are self-defeating.
- Economics as a discipline also suffers from faddishness, being dominated by 4 U.S. departments in two cities; macroeconomics is dominated by MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Economics departments run their Ph.D. programs like trade schools/Ph.D. factories, teaching techniques like dynamic programming or cointegration, which then are applied in dull theses. An educated person who follows any science is shocked to see how changes in economics follow faddish technique rather than experimental/econometric triumph (in competition against competing theories or methods) or mathematical progress: Some pseudo-scientific fads are visible in the history of macroeconomic thought, which neglects progress in mathematical economics and assessment by econometrics.
- Recently, economists have been embarrassed by "econometric methods" that estimated exposure-effects (for having participated in a labor-market training) as positive, when randomized experiments found negative or zero average treatment effects. As a result, funding agencies are encouraging or mandating designed experiments to evaluate treatment effects---forcing economists to do more than raid databases with Stata and inflict more of their idiotic "econometric models" on the public.
- Lately, economics textbooks have been shamelessly replacing their previous editions' claims about the efficacy of so-called "econometric methods" for observational data with new sections on the importance of experiments---this is like economics textbooks previously having replaced sections about the virtues of economic planning---again without confession or shame!
- Fifelfoo: Contributors need to understand WEIGHT and NPOV policy. Economics as an academic discipline has a very firm idea of what is current scholarly practice, including current scholarly minority view points: the Keynesian/neo-liberal positions. However, editors with experience in areas of political economy, such as Austrian economics and Marxist economics are welcome to contribute. Editors with backgrounds in political economic traditions need to avoid claiming that their analytical perspectives are factual, avoid adding too much weight, and most importantly: find elements of their own tradition that aren't written very well and reliably source them from scholarly works. Everyone is welcome, but, Wikipedia needs to represent the economic mainstream with central weight and focus — if the scholarship changes, the scholarship changes, but, we're not scholars, we're encyclopaedists.
- Personally, I'd prefer seeing more economic historians contributing! We need articles on economic modelling and theory; but, we also need articles on how past economies actually worked. Editors who are intimidated by advanced micro-economics or macro-economic theory could certainly help write on the economic history of transatlantic trade; or, the economic history of Indian Ocean trade; or, the economic history of primary production in Australia. Noel Butlin's monographs are waiting to supply us with excellent articles. The biographies of economists are also in need of love.
- Protonk: NPOV is a big issue. Many large economics articles have what are essentially forks dedicated to explaining or promoting the Austrian school point of view on a subject. This is especially problematic on articles relating to central banking, inflation and big macro issues like demand or government spending. Why the Austrian school is so over-represented on Wikipedia is a question for another day, but suffice it to say the model Wikipedian is right in the wheelhouse for Austrian demographics: male, young and technologically inclined. Consequently disputes on Wikipedia over areas of interest to the Austrian school grow well out of proportion to their significance within the discipline.
- I don't know what solves this problem. Credentialism won't work. Even if we could reliably enforce standards for contributors it would run counter to the mission of Wikipedia and foreclose opportunities for talented and interested amateurs to improve articles. We also don't have the strength or consensus to apply a strict content rule (similar to the way fringe theories are treated in science or medicine). We could vote on a rule and ban contributors who run afoul of it but that would just invite complaints of censorship and create a negative environment for everyone. The only real potential solution is to signal members within the discipline that Wikipedia is a worthy, malleable resource as Prof. Erik Olin Wright has to the American Sociological Association.
- On the subject of econometrics vs. experiments there was a symposium in the Spring 2010 JEP discussing this very issue. Movements away from econometric dominance in general are good but I agree somewhat with Christopher Sims that economics will never be an experimental science. This has always been broadly claimed at the outset of every intro/intermediate course with trivial examples (e.g. we can't experiment with large scale fiscal policy) but it is true even in more meaningful fashions.
Anything else you'd like to add?
- Kiefer.Wolfowitz: With all of its problems, economics still has the highest mean I.Q. of any social study, and it and (non-clinical) psychology have the best intellectual standards in the social studies---sad but true.
- One problem is that educated economists are less likely to contribute pro bono than they would if they were e.g. medical doctors or biologists. In particular, the study of microeconomics reduces students' propensity to cooperate, according to experiments by Cornell's Robert Frank. (Robert Frank, Thomas Gilovich & Dennis Regan: Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation? in: Journal of Economic Perspectives. Volume 7, Number 2. Spring 1993. pp. 159–71.) The gloomy science's WikiProject has a gloomy future!
- Fifelfoo: Our economics articles could really do with an influx of high quality articles written from the mainstream weighting and perspective. If you have a degree in economics, why not fine tune an article using scholarly sources?
- Protonk: Economics suffers from a dearth of practitioners who have general interest knowledge on many subjects in the discipline and maintain a professional interest in keeping the average reader informed on basic research. Contrast this with medicine (as exemplified by the great WikiProject Medicine) where practicing physicians benefit from their patients reaching only quality content from google searches for drugs, symptoms or disease name. Every preconception disabused online is a question they will not have to answer in a clinic. By contrast most practicing economists have no direct contact with the public (save professors). They may be interested in spreading knowledge about research or techniques but the intended audience will be very different and in many cases they have already found outlets outside of Wikipedia to host their contributions. There are a number of contributing factors to the low level of professional contributions to economics articles but lack of an external interest in an informed public is most persistent.
Next week, we'll decorate the tree of life. Until then, categorize every living thing in the archive.
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