Thoughts on Economics Seminars

My Twitter feed has recently been filled with people arguing about whether economics seminars are conducive to improving research in the field. For those unfamiliar with academic economics, our seminars tend to encourage active participation from the audience. While it varies across individuals, many economics professors have no problem interrupting a presentation to ask a question (or voice their displeasure) about something in your presentation. Fabio Ghironi, a professor at the University of Washington, recently compared economics seminars to a fencing match. Professors try to stab with you by asking you challenging questions about your models and methods and it is up to you to defend yourself.

I like this analogy and I think it perfectly describes my experience in macroeconomics at UCLA so far. Especially in the student seminars it is a rare occurrence to see somebody make it past their first slide without somebody chiming in. In general, I like this style of seminar. Rather than waiting until the end to answer a bunch of questions at once, it allows the presenter to deal with confusion and make clarifications as they go. Being forced to defend your work against criticism also helps make the parts that need improvement immediately clear.

I do see some problems with the current format of economics seminars, however. One issue arises when the questions seem aimed at proving the questioners intelligence rather than helping understand or improve the research. Especially for early work in progress where the paper is unpolished, too often have I seen audience members shaking their heads or making faces at ideas that are undeveloped but might still have potential. I think I am probably guilty of this as well. Another problem is when questions try to anticipate the rest of the presentation. The introduction slide should not be the place to figure out the identification strategy or the specifics of the model.

The biggest problem though is that being a good researcher and being able to sell your work in a presentation are not necessarily correlated. Many people are great at coming up with ideas and writing down interesting models, but not so good at presenting these ideas in a way that convinces other people that they are interesting. Of course, there is some truth to the idea that if you cannot present your idea well it may actually just not be that interesting, but the opposite is also true. Do we want economics to be dominated by used car salesmen that can make any idea sound great in an hour long seminar? Confidence and the ability to think on your feet are certainly valuable skills for any job, but shouldn’t they be less important for researchers whose goal is to seek out the truth, not just sell their own idea?

Too often it seems that communication ability and value as a researcher are conflated. But if we really want economics to stand as a science beside physics and chemistry (I’m not sure we do, but some people seem to want to), then we should avoid making this mistake. Research should be judged based on how well it improves our understanding of the real world. If a paper makes accurate predictions or useful methodological advances it shouldn’t matter if it’s presented or even written well or not.

The obvious objection to this point is that if research cannot be communicated well, how do we know if it’s good or not? We can’t carefully read every paper and spend time figuring out what it really means. A presentation is supposed to provide a quick overview of the main results to prove that the full paper is actually worth reading. How can we keep this benefit without throwing out good research done by poor presenters?

My solution is to separate research and the communication of research. Why does the person that wrote the model or collected the data have to be the one that presents it? It seems to me that current economics academics actually have two jobs. First, they have to write a paper that they know is interesting, often with fancy math that is difficult to understand for anyone not closely related to their field. Their second job is then to convince others that their idea is worth looking at, explaining complex ideas in a short amount of time to those who aren’t heavily invested in the literature. Why do both of these jobs have to be done by the same person? Manufacturers hire marketing firms to sell their product. Why can’t economists do the same thing?

One way around this problem comes through co-authoring papers. By forming a pair where at least one author is a relatively good communicator, researchers who lack communication skills can leverage their other skills and still be successful. However, this strategy can’t work for students looking to be hired since they need to prove they have value as a researcher on their own. With a co-authored paper it is impossible to tell how much each of the authors actually contributed. But what if they could hire somebody just to present? The economist writes the model, deals with the data, and produces all of the results. The presenter then turns that into something others can understand and evaluate.

I can see why some people wouldn’t like this setup. There is something pure about research being an individual project from start to finish. Coming up with a great idea, answering it in a clever way, and then explaining it to colleagues in the best possible way. But the goal of the profession should not be to find the most well-rounded researcher, but to advance our understanding of economics. If good ideas are being pushed aside simply because they aren’t communicated well enough, we should do everything we can to correct that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *