Last week, Gummo Trotsky wrote a feisty post, criticising the intervention of economists into the question of the impact of mobile phone usage on accident rates. More recently, commenter whyisitso on Andrew Norton’s blog asked economist Harry ClarkeÂ how he presumed to write about climate change.Â Â
â€œIâ€™ve taught students about climate change aned have written several papers on climate change – the earliest in 1991. My work is cited by leading economists in the area such as Robert Pindyck.â€
OK Harry. I donâ€™t doubt that for a layman you are well informed. But your comment brings to mind the wonderful (repeated) interview by Margaret Throsby yesterday with Michael Parkinson.
Parkinson relates the story of his ageing fatherâ€™s comment about his own (ie Michaelâ€™s) fame and achievements – â€œAye Lud. But tâ€™aint lark playinâ€™ for Yorksha is it?â€
Tainâ€™t like youâ€™re a climatologist, is it Harry?
In both cases, I can see the frustration with economists presuming to stick their noses into areas that others (public health researchers, climate scientists) have been working on for years. In many cases, I think the annoyance also arises because such economistsÂ frequently don’t even devote their entire careers to that particular question. I’ve been blamed myself for doing just this with papers that range into public health, political science, and education. (When my last teacher quality study came out, the head of the Australian Education Union Pat Byrne – who I quite like on a personal level -Â told ABC TV that it proved “he justÂ doesn’t live in the real world”.)
There’s certainly a kernel of truth in the critique of economics as imperialism. EconomistsÂ oftenÂ take too little account of previous research, and sometimes overstate their own contribution. But I do think thatÂ our empirical techniques have in many casesÂ a lotÂ to contribute to debates in other social sciences.Â To name three points, I thinkÂ ourÂ training helps us handle very large datasets, think about causal inference more rigorouslyÂ than other social sciences, and model incentives (Greg Mankiw has a less modest list, while Ed Lazear is the classic reference). And if you’re a non-economist social scientists who doesn’t like the contribution of economists to your favourite topic area, you’ll be pleased to know that the assumption of free disposal (of economics research) still holds.