Science (esp. econ) made fun

November 10, 2009 at 4:40 am 1 comment

| Gabriel |

In a review essay, Vromen talks about the (whodathunkit) popular book/magazine-column/blog genre of economics-made-fun that’s become a huge hit with the mass audience in the last 5 to 10 years. Although Vromen doesn’t mention it, this can be seen as a special case of the science-can-be-fun genre (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould’s short essays that use things like Hershey bars and Mickey Mouse to explain reasonably complex principles of evolutionary biology.)

Vromen makes a careful distinction from the older genre of economists-can-be-funny (currently exemplified by the stand-up economist), which is really a special case of the general genre of scientists doing elaborate satires of their own disciplines for the benefit of their peers. There is an entire journal of this, but my all time favorite example is a satire of mid-20th century psychology in the form of a review of the literature on when people are willing to pass the salt at the dinner table.  Two excerpts from the “references” section should suffice to convince you to click the link and read the whole thing.

  • Festinger, R. “Let’s Give Some Subjects $20 and Some Subjects $1 and See What Happens.” Journal for Predictions Contrary to Common Sense 10, 1956, pp. 1-20.
  • Milgram, R. “An Electrician’s Wiring Guide to Social Science Experiments.” Popular Mechanics 23, 1969, pp. 74-87.

If you don’t remember what Festinger and Milgram actually did in the 50s and 60s this won’t be funny, but if you do it’s hilarious. Hence, the scientists-can-be-funny genre is a self-deprecating genre for an audience of insiders that simultaneously demonstrates the joker’s mastery of the field and the field’s foibles. In contrast, the science-can-be-fun genre is targeted to a mass audience and is about demonstrating the elegance and power of the field. The former inspires humility among practitioners, the latter awe among the yokels.

One of the interesting things about the econ-made-fun literary genre is that it is largely orthogonal to any theoretical distinction within scholarly economics. The most prominent “econ made fun” practitioners span such theoretical areas as applied micro (Levitt), behavioral (Ariely), and Austrian (Cowen). In part because the “econ made fun” genre exploded at about the same time as the Kahneman Nobel and in part because “econ made fun” tends to focus on unusual substantive issues (i.e., anything but financial markets), this has led a lot of people to conflate “econ made fun” and behavioral econ. I’ve heard Steve Levitt referred to as a “behavioral economist” several times. This drives me crazy as at a theoretical level, behavioral economics is the opposite of applied micro, and in fact Levitt has done important work suggesting that behavioral econ may not generalize very well from the lab to the real world. That people (including people who ought to know better) nonetheless refer to him as a “behavioral economist” suggests to me that in the popular imagination literary genre is vastly more salient than theoretical content.

I myself occasionally do the “sociologists can be funny” genre (see here , here, and here) but these are basically elaborate deadpan in-jokes and I am under no illusions that anyone without a PhD would find them at all funny. I have no idea how to go about writing “sociology can be fun” (this is probably the closest I’ve come) along the lines of Levitt/Dubner or Harford, nor to be honest do I see any other sociologist doing it particularly well. There are plenty of sociologists who try to speak to a mass audience, but the tone tends to be professorial exposition or political exhortation rather than amusement at the surprising intricacy of social life. Fortunately Malcolm Gladwell has an intense and fairly serious interest in sociology and is very talented at making our field look fun.

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1 Comment

  • 1. Joshua Zelinsky  |  November 11, 2009 at 2:23 am

    The situation in the popular mind may actually be worse than what you describe. I’ve met at least one person who seemed to essentially think that behavior economics was essentially synonymous with economics (they didn’t phrase it that way but that’s essentially the claim that was made). I was not successful convincing the individual otherwise. This is likely not an isolated individual. There may be a related issue that in the popular mind people can’t name many economists. If people had to name a contemporary economist I’d expect you’d get Levitt and Kahneman as your most common responses.

    It is strange that people think of Levitt as doing behavior economics in that all the examples in his major popularization are precisely situations where it turns out that apparently irrational or just weird behavior has rational economic motives. So I guess we’re in agreement there. The notion that this isn’t at all the same thing as behavioral economics can’t be emphasized enough. If people think otherwise they don’t understand the basic idea of behavioral econ.

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