Are economists not humble enough?

The Economics profession has been targeted on various fronts lately: one is for a lack of a code of ethics, as exposed by the documentary Inside Job, and another has been the lack of forecasting or warning about the current crisis. With respect to the first, the American Economic Association has convened a committee to create a code of ethics, although unfortunately with a rather narrow mandate. Regarding the second, I believe the accusations are overblown, in part because economists have warned about excessive house prices, because bubbles are by definition unobservable, and because the principal accused, modern macroeconomics, has addressed before the crisis many of the aspects it is being accused of missing. This latter point has mainly been put forward by some economists who have a rather antiquated knowledge of the field, as occasionally addressed here.

One of them is David Colander, who has an admirable art of getting into all the right committees at the AEA. This time, it is the Ethics Committee. In his latest paper, he argues that he is not too worried about the funding of economic research and the lack of disclosures. He is rather bothered by the fact that economists do not have the humility to declare how fragile their results may be. They should be more forthcoming about the risk of error, much as engineers do as they care a lot about failure.

I can see where Colander is coming from, but I do not think this is the fault of the economists, but rather of the public consuming economic research. From personal experience, nobody cares about alternative scenarios. Well many editors do, but people in the industry do not. All they want is a precise number to run with. And even if you include standard errors and such, all that is reported is the median. I am guilty of this on this blog as well, it would take too much time and space to report this for every paper, and it distract from the main message. Only when I think the authors have abused the simplification or neglected possible scenarios do I discuss this, and this does not happen too often. And I think it is very symptomatic how Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims have recently been ridiculed in the press for refusing to provide instant answers to difficult questions. In short, I think the problem has less to do with the economists than with the readership.

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