David R. Henderson  

David Friedman on Bill Nordhaus; Timothy Taylor on Bad Academic Writing

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David Friedman has lately been picking apart a piece written by Yale University's Bill Nordhaus in the New York Review of Books two years ago. I did so in my class on Energy Economics two years ago, drawing on this post, and now David has provided an even better criticism. Here's David:

His [Nordhaus's] conclusion: "I believe the opposite of what the sixteen claim to be true: dissident voices and new theories are encouraged because they are critical to sharpening our analysis."

His argument in support of that claim I find unpersuasive, but that does not imply that the claim itself is false. The piece he is criticizing, after all, offered no evidence in favor of its claim in the opposite direction. Nordhaus himself, however, provides some--not in words but in deeds.

The claim of the critics is summed up in the title of their article: "No Need to Panic About Global Warming: There's no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy." The claim of those on the other side is the opposite--that global warming poses a severe threat to human welfare and drastic action is needed to slow it. Which side of that argument does Nordhaus' own research, as reported in his article, support?

The answer is clear. He finds that the net cost of waiting fifty years instead of taking the optimal actions now is $4.1 trillion dollars. Spread out over the rest of the century, that comes to about $48 billion/year, or about .06% of current world GNP. Which position is that closer to, that there is a need to panic and take drastic action or that there is not?

And yet, when Nordhaus publishes an article in the New York Review of Books, a very high profile publication, it is an attack on the critics, not an attack on those who, according to his own research, vastly exaggerate the scale of the problem and the need for immediate, drastic action.

A central idea of economics is revealed preference--we judge people by what they do, not by what they say.


Of course, I would add that for academics, saying in writing is doing. And, of course, that's what David meant. I would also point out that a writer for pretty much any popular publication rarely gets to choose his own title. So the odds that Nordhaus chose this title for the piece are very low. But that's not that important in this case because Nordhaus did write the article. And the whole thrust of the article is to take on those who think that global warming is not that big a deal. In other words, it's to take on people who are closer to Nordhaus's view than to the global warming extremists' view.

One thing you can't accuse Nordhaus of, though, is being a lousy writer. Unfortunately, you can accuse many academics of that. Timothy Taylor, aka The Conversable Economist, highlights a book that explains why. The book, by Michael Billig, is titled Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Taylor quotes a section of the book that explains the incentives for academics to write a lot, incentives that are different from those of a generation ago.

Here's another relevant quote:

Journal editors, as well as those who have studied academic publishing, recognize the phenomenon of `salami slicing'. Academic authors will cut their research findings thinly, so that they can maximize the number of publications they can obtain from a single piece of research.

By the way, I see this a lot as a referee of economics journal articles--not just the passive voice but also outright bad grammar.


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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Curtis L. writes:

I see it a lot as a reader as well. Personally, I take mental note both of what I like and dislike in the way an author writes. The stuff I like I try to incorporate into my own writing. The stuff I don't like I try to avoid.

People respond to incentives. There is no incentive to approach academic writing as a craft. For now.

Jack PQ writes:

It is appalling but social sciences including economics have been influenced by the natural sciences approach to measuring research output, which is bean-counting.

Deans only count the number of articles (a Dean told me this firsthand). Research granting agencies ditto (I've sat on some committees). What's a researcher to do?

I'm reminded of the old George Stigler line.
"George Stigler was asked about [Harry] Johnson's 500 published papers versus his 100. Stigler replied, 'Yes, but mine were all different.' "

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2138593

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