One of the odd things about the debates we’ve been having over economic policy since the financial crisis is how many people on one side of these debates — the side I’m not on, as it happens — believe that they can win arguments by pulling rank. Critics are dismissed as just bloggers, which supposedly disqualifies them from pointing out errors and untrue statements; ideas are dismissed (wrongly, as it happens) as not part of what anyone has taught graduate students , as if this removes any possibility that the ideas might nonetheless be right. ...
What a lot of people — academics, I’m sorry to say, in particular — don’t seem to understand are the limits to what credentials get you, in principle and in practice.
Basically, having a fancy named chair and maybe some prizes entitles you to a hearing — no more. It’s a great buzzing hive of commentary out there, so nobody can read everything that someone says; but if a famous intellectual makes a pronouncement, he both should and does get a listen much more easily than someone without the preexisting reputation.
But academic credentials are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having your ideas taken seriously. If a famous professor repeatedly says stupid things, then tries to claim he never said them, there’s no rule against calling him a mendacious idiot — and no special qualifications required to make that pronouncement other than doing your own homework.
Conversely, if someone without formal credentials consistently makes trenchant, insightful observations, he or she has earned the right to be taken seriously, regardless of background.
One of the great things about the blogosphere is that it has made it possible for a number of people meeting that second condition to gain an audience. I don’t care whether they’re PhDs, professors, or just some guy with a blog — it’s the work that matters.
Meanwhile, we didn’t need blogs to know that many great and famous intellectuals are, in fact, fools. Some of them may always have been fools; some of them are hedgehogs, who know a lot about a narrow area but are ignorant elsewhere (and are, in many cases, so ignorant that they don’t know they’re ignorant — a variant on Dunning-Kruger.) And some of them have, for whatever reason, lost it — I can think offhand of several economists, not all of them all that old, of whom it is common to say, “I can’t believe that guy wrote those papers.”
And let me add that believing that you can pull rank in this wide-open modern age is itself a demonstration of incompetence. Who, exactly, do you think cares? Not the readers, that’s for sure.
True, it’s now a rough world for people who do sloppy work, and are counting on their credentials to shield them from criticism. Somehow, though, I can’t seem to muster any sympathy.
When a highly credentialed economist makes a strong statement, especially one that is consistent with the knee jerk reaction of most economists who'd rather not think much about a subject (they know GARP and WARP, thanks Varian!, but there is no general axiom of stated preference [GASP] or even a weak axiom [WASP]), then it is so easy to accept whatever the credentialed economist says without a hint of regret (as the NBER seems to have done).
My PhD is from the University of Kentucky and I work at Appalachian State. My co-authors are aggies (enough said? but at least they have graduate students). I'd venture that many economists would count that as being "without formal credentials" (as Krugman does above, but probably doesn't realize it :) and easily dismissed. I think we did our homework with this comment that is forthcoming in AEPP (an aggie journal, sigh) but am happy to let the "bloody peasants" be the judge.
In case you missed it, I couldn't stop thinking about this scene while writing this post: