Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not thinking like an economist vs. not thinking, like an economist

Noah Smith has an excellent post on the strange tendency of some economists to treat offensiveness as a sign of clear-thinking. You should read the whole thing, but first I want to take a moment to focus on this quote by Daniel Kuehn:
A lot of people don't get "thinking like an economist" when they see it, [In this case, the people who don't get "thinking like an economist" include Brad DeLong and Noah Smith, but I digress -- Mark*] and what I think Landsburg is doing here is "thinking like an economist", not being a jerk...
Thinking like an economist simply means that you scientifically approach human social behavior - which means that you approach them like any other species of animal. Nobody judges animals when they behave in ways that we would consider horrendous in other humans. They're just... animals. And that's what you really need for good social science. You need to look at your fellow humans as "just animals". Astonishing, wondrous animals to be sure - but just animals...
It's absolutely critical for good economists to see the world in this way...I suspect [Landsburg] was "thinking like an economist". The problem is, of course, it flowed over from scientific analysis of human behavior to a commentary on a single individual human being[.]
[Landsburg] dotted all his i's and crossed all his t's on the analysis, because he's good at thinking like an economist.
We've been through this before. Steve Levitt used the thinking-like-an-economist line to dismiss critics. I found it lacking at the time and it hasn't grown on me since then but it should be noted that even at his worst, Levitt is making an effort to approach questions scientifically. I don't believe that a majority (or even a plurality) of Levitt's critics disagree with him because he's too logical, but at least it's a claim that can be made with a straight face.

Landsburg's defense of Limbaugh is an entirely different beast. There's no trace of a scientific process here or of any thoughtful process at all for arriving at a position. Landsburg simply reacted angrily when he saw people he didn't like say things he disagreed with. Unfortunately, he expressed that anger with a spectacularly shoddy attempt at an argument that misrepresented the original facts, mangled the reasoning and required the reader to make up new definitions for most of the operative words.

By applying it to Landsburg's Fluke post, Kuehn has stretched the thinking-like-an-economist defense to the point that if covers pretty much any statement, no matter how incoherent, as long as it includes something offensive to the general public.

(for more to this topic, check out this post by Andrew Gelman.)

UPDATE: Daniel Kuehn argues here that Smith misrepresented his original post. Read both and come to your own conclusion.

* And just to be clear, this bracketed statement was an editorial insert by me, not an aside by Kuehn.


  1. You really need to get better acquainted with people's arguments before you criticize them. I was not defending Landsburg. I have been a consistent critic of Landsburg on the Fluke thing.

    No one had any trouble figuring that out until Noah's post yesterday. I took my original post down and put a new one up restating my position because I'd rather have a post that I think is straight-forward that doesn't need clarification than a post that I think is straight-forward that (apparently) does need clarification.

    The whole point of my original post was precisely that "thinking like an economist", while very useful, is NOT an excuse for being offensive. Noah selectively quoted and made it sound like I was saying exactly the opposite.

  2. If you are interested in what Daniel Kuehn thinks on this and not what Noah Smith claims Daniel Kuehn thinks, you might be interested in reading this:

    Please make it clear to your readers that Noah Smith's post does not accurately represent my views on Landsburg, Limbaugh, Fluke, or economists in general.

  3. On the Gelman post that you link - I remember when he wrote that. My reaction is that anyone who makes argument 1 probably has a pretty good sense of what they're talking about. Anyone who makes argument 2 probably doesn't. Judging from my personal experience, I don't know many economists who insist on number 2. I'm not sure where Gelman is getting that. My guess is it says as much about him as it does about the economists he's listening to (which is no slight on Gelman - I think that's true of how all of us interpret the world).

  4. Also - please don't add bracketed thoughts as if they're a clarification of my view (like your addition about DeLong and Thoma - two economists I have a deep respect for), when it's not my view at all.

    If you want to editorialize and change what I said, do it outside of my quotation - don't put words in my mouth.

    1. I apologize for the tone being overly snide but I did think it was important to point out for people who weren't following the debate that much of the criticism of Landsburg was coming from within the economics community.

  5. Daniel: I am the other blogger on OE. I read the original piece over quickly and could see where Noah Smith got his original view. I wanted to go over it in more detail today (after these posts) but it has been taken down. Maybe that is for the best if it ended up being widely misinterpreted.

    I will ask Mark if he is comfortable removing the attribution from the quotes and/or adding an edit to point out that your position has been clarified.

    1. I'd appreciate noting the clarification - but do what you think is best.

      Perhaps I'm overreacting - I just don't like the idea of being associated with Landsburg/Limbaugh.

    2. Having read some of nasty comments on Smith's blog, I can sympathize. You really should ignore those people.

  6. I don't mean any ill-will towards you two in my initial comment... this is just something I have not enjoyed having floating around out there, so I think I've been a little touchy.

  7. I don't think ill will was present on either side of the debate. :-)