Macro, micro, and conflicts of interest

August 13, 2012
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(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Jeff points me to this and this. There seems to be a perception that “economists, the people who will cooly explain why people will be completely corrupt if the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost, see themselves as being completely not corrupt” (according to Atrios) and that “the economists who have decided to lend their names to the [Romney] campaign have been caught up in this culture of fraud” (according to Krugman).

The bloggers above are talking about macro, and perhaps they’re right that macroeconomists see themselves as uncorruptible and above it all. As with political science, the key parts of macroeconomics are about what is good for the world (or, at least, what is good for the country), and it’s hard to do this well from a level of complete cynicism. I’m no expert on macroeconomics, but my general impression is that, Marxists aside, macroeconomists tend to assume shared goals.

Micro, though, that’s completely different. These dudes are happy to admit to their own biases, and they’re acutely aware that systems can be gamed by people who might be just like them in technique but with different goals. For example, Steven Levitt wrote:

My view is that the emails [extracted by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia] aren’t that damaging. Is it surprising that scientists would try to keep work that disagrees with their findings out of journals? When I told my father that I was sending my work saying car seats are not that effective to medical journals, he laughed and said they would never publish it because of the result, no matter how well done the analysis was. (As is so often the case, he was right, and I eventually published it in an economics journal.)

Within the field of economics, academics work behind the scenes constantly trying to undermine each other. I’ve seen economists do far worse things than pulling tricks in figures. When economists get mixed up in public policy, things get messier. So it is not at all surprising to me that climate scientists would behave the same way.

And Levitt himself has been involved in some controversies about unethical scholarly behavior in econ journals.

As I wrote when I first read Levitt’s remarks, I’m not quite sure how to interpret the overall flow of his reasoning. On one hand, I can’t disagree with the descriptive implications: Some scientists behave badly. I don’t know enough about economics to verify his claim that academics in that field “constantly trying to undermine each other . . . do far worse things than pulling tricks in figures”–but I’ll take Levitt’s word for it.

But I’m disturbed by the possible normative implications of Levitt’s statement. It’s certainly not the case that everybody does it! I’m a scientist, and, no, I don’t “pull tricks in figures” or anything like this. I don’t know what percentage of scientists we’re talking about here, but I don’t think this is what the best scientists do. And I certainly don’t think it’s ok to do so.

What I’m saying is, I think Levitt is doing a big service by publicly recognizing that scientists sometimes—often?—do unethical behavior such as hiding data. But I’m unhappy with the sense of amused, world-weary tolerance that I get from reading his comment.

Macro/micro

To return to my original point: Atrios and Krugman are disturbed by macro guys who don’t acknowledge their direct conflicts of interest. Coming from the other direction, though, are microeconomists who are, to my taste, too accepting of the inevitability of scholars gaming the system.

I would prefer an intermediate position in which we recognize the temptations of conflict of interest and work to reduce the resulting biases, without losing the ethical standard under which we are expected to be as open and honest as possible. Realism without cynicism (to the extent possible).



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