Mark Thoma on Resolving the Disconnect Between Economists and Public Discourse


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Mark Thoma tackles the question of why--and how--the field of economics retreated from what he calls its "public mission," in an essay for the Institute for Public Knowledge.  While once a discipline that engaged routinely with citizens and leaders in the public sector, Economics spent much of the latter half of the twentieth century exploring issues that, while important, were not part of the general discourse.  Thoma calls this "The Great Disconnect," and he examines several reasons for it:

Mathematics and the Desire to be a Scientific Discipline

...Michael Bernstein makes this point as well, as the discipline became more and more mathematical – the language we speak is increasingly symbolic rather than verbal – it became less accessible to outsiders.

Positive and Normative Economics

...economists have become less willing to take sides in public debates, and more importantly unwilling to wade into public debates when doing so can be perceived as supporting one side over the other.

Sociological Factors

...As economics has become increasingly mathematical and theoretical, it has also become more cliquish.

Interest in Different Questions

...The fact that those inside and outside of academics are interested in different questions may have also play a role in severing the ties of academics to the outside world.

The result, Thoma argues, is bad for the field, for economists, and for society in general:

For all of these reasons, economics lost communication with policymakers and practitioners leaving room for all sorts of “charlatans and cranks” to fill the void. In doing so, academics ceded important ground to think tanks aligned with one party or the other, to self-appointed economic experts, to business economists maximizing profit rather than public knowledge, and to a media that doesn’t always comprehend the economics that underlie a particular issue. Even in cases where there actually was fairly wide agreement among academic economists about a particular policy proposal, the public debate in the media did not convey that economists were largely united on the issue.

But there is good news.  The last five years have brought about a lot of positive change.  Thanks to social media and blogging, more and more economists are writing for a public audience.  Thoma has seen the benefits of engaging with the public through his own blog, Economist's View (one of many daily reads for The Watch).  He extols the virtues of blogging and writing for the public at large in the second half of his essay.  Read New Forms of Communication and the Public Mission of Economics: Overcoming the Great Disconnect here.

Posted 11-07-2011 9:31 AM by Graham Griffith
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