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On the Unwillingness of Economists to Recant, Even in the Face of Evidence

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From a newly minted PhD, via e-mail:

I ran into another Harvard student who recently had a chat with a senior economics faculty member who is telling students the following anecdote. Apparently the professor is involved in some way with the American Economics Review.

The AER has a backlog of two to three years between when papers are submitted and when they appear in print. Some of the papers currently in the pipeline, submitted before the crisis broke, predicted that the U.S. or global economy would remain prosperous and stable for many years to come. The professor wrote to all of these authors, asking them if they would like to withdraw their articles or at least modify them. All refused.

Consequently, for something like the next three years, the AER will interleave articles explaining why the crisis occurred with articles explaining why the crisis could not occur.

We can all wait with baited breath for future issues of the AER to see if this sighting is accurate, or maybe another reader can provide input.

But this story may say more about the standing of the AER and the pressure to publish, that it’s more important to get a paper published in a good venue than be something that will stand the test of time (to put it politely). If so, the incentives in the discipline are bad indeed.

But the surprising bit, if the details are right, is the rejection of the opportunity to rework the papers. Do they all believe that in two years we will be back to good global growth and this in retrospect will look like a convulsion that passed quickly?

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  1. attempter

    It sounds like a scene in a sitcom where the teacher says, "As it is I'd have to give this paper a D, but I'll let you rewrite it over the weekend and resubmit it on Monday."

    (Whining tone) "But then I'll miss the party!"

    Seriously, is there really so little penalty for being so obtusely wrong that they'd rather just let these papers go ahead as is?

    They're too lazy to even tack on a revisionary postscript bogusly explaining how the jury's not yet in, and therefore the paper's accuracy can't yet be judged.

    Oh, well, look at the system I'm asking…There's no accountability anywhere else.

    When I read about Roubini's alleged bullishness, it made me think of an article I read somewhere, maybe here, about how when a bear is proven right, it's good tactics to then tack bullward. Your reputation is already secure, but can be damaged if you wrongly keep being pessimistic, while there's never a penalty for being wrongly optimistic.

  2. Anonymous

    In other disciplines, I have heard that the pressure to be published is intense – appointments will in part be decided by how well published an applicant is. Against this background it's hardly surprising that quantity becomes more important than quality.

  3. Tenney Naumer

    During 1979-1986, I worked as a technical editor for Elsevier Science Publishers, B.V., in Amsterdam, primarily on analytical chemistry and neuroscience journals. I got to see first hand how the peer-reviewed process works. Later, I studied as a doctoral student in finance (quit after 3 years), and also saw that end, as well as watching various professors struggling to become tenurized. If the journal to which you referred is considered a top tier journal in its field, then I am not surprised that no author would withdraw his/her paper and revise it. Once a paper is accepted for publication, it can be called "in press," and it counts toward tenure.
    Everything I saw of the process to get tenure indicated to me that getting papers published in top tier journals was the most important criterium.
    Also, it seems obvious that if these papers are about research results that indicated smooth sailing, then it would be difficult to revise them to indicate otherwise, would it not?

  4. CCz

    What is and what makes a top tier journal? And what supports a top tier journal at that level?
    Is it wise for a journal to publish articles that go against the public evidences? Stuff outdated by time?

  5. Anonymous

    This is not at all surprising. The way the tenure system works (in economics, at least), is that once you get a tenure-track job, you get one six-year shot for tenure. If you don't succeed within those six years, you get fired, and your chances of getting another tenure-track job become very slim. Most people would rather be employed and wrong than unemployed than right. Especially since for an economist, here unemployed means total career death.

  6. Anonymous

    A story I heard in grad school. A Ph.D. thesis in astrophysics derived a complicated formula for the diameter of the universe. At the defense, the student was asked "what does that come to in numbers?" He didn't know, so the professor made him write the formula on the blackboard, plug in all the numbers, and do the arithmetic. It came out to one centimeter. He passed anyway.

  7. Dan Duncan

    Yves writes a post knocking economists "for failing to recant even in the face of evidence" while getting the whole thing wrong herself.

    First off, did Rogoff give them the opportunity to "recant" or "rework"? These are two different things.

    How would you even propose that they "recant", given that they wrote these articles 2-3 years ago?

    Economist writes something in '06. By '09, it's proven to be incorrect–but it's still unpublished.

    What? Do they post a big red "I Recant" stamp on top of the paper and then send it to press?

    OK, so they might "rework" the paper. Just what in the hell is that supposed to mean?

    Does the author just do it over and backdate it…pretending he got it right the first time?

    Does the author just scrap all analysis from '07, starting over with fresh new analysis in '09, hoping he's proven correct by the time AER publishes in 2011?

    Does the author excerpt portions of his prior work, and then proceed to slam it, pointing out just how wrong he was the first time?

    And why is the AER—with a 2-3 year backlog—accepting papers on CURRENT issues?

    Is it standard practice for AER to allow "reworks"? If so, is the reader informed that the "Reworker Bee" got it wrong the first time…or does the AER simply allow rolling "reworks" until the author finally gets it right?

    Finally, and most importantly:

    In light of the above—why on earth would anyone read anything from the AER? What a colossal waste of time. It appears that this publication was established for the sole purpose of….Publication.

    Since this is a high-minded academic discussion, I shall end my lengthy–and riveting– post with an appropriate send off…

    In conclusion, I leave you with the following questions:

    1. Why does the title to this post begin with a preposition?

    2. Sorry Attempter…but if I'm going to spend some time on academia, you have to be included: What, exactly, was that sitcom referred to your comment? Sounds like a real riot! And what is "obtusely wrong"???? I know what obtusely written is…but "obtusely wrong"? And while we're at it: Could you also supply an example of something that's "obtusely correct"?

  8. Siggy

    For DD,

    The sitcom being referred to may be Welcome Back Kotter. Doesn't matter because it's very hard to be obtusely wrong; or right, even in a sitcom.

    If the papers are two years old and the conclusions don't stand up in the current state of economic affairs, the papers should be returned to the authors. If the Journal goes ahead and published them, then the Journal is hardly first rate.

  9. Anonymous

    Sounds like an opportunity for AER to reduce its backlog. Just refuse to print papers that have proven wrong. Of course that just opens the space for current papers that may also prove wrong two years from now. The situation strongly suggests that the publishing requirement for tenure notion is flawed. I would be willing to bet that most college grads would agree they took classes from tenured professors who could not teach.

  10. Anonymous

    The story is simply not credible, as you can see if you take a few minutes to browse AER article titles, painful as that may be.

    The papers are usually timeless pearls of economic wisdom, unaffected by the intrusion of reality. They don't typically contain forecasts, as your correspondent would have us believe.

  11. framed

    Anonymous nails the incentive problem involved in academia; if you don't publish in top-tier journals (and the AER is one of the three or four journals in our field considered as such) you don't get tenure at most research universities.

    AER currently accepts about 7% of papers submitted and there is an exceptionally lengthy process that one must go through to get the point of acceptance.

    Example: A year after submitting her paper, a former colleague received what is known as a "revise and resubmit" from the AER. The revisions were substantial and took about six months. She then waited another six months to hear back (revisions are usually sent back to the original referees, so if you don't show sufficient attention to the often bizarre comments, it's easy to piss someone off and foil whatever chance you had at acceptance). The response was a "conditional acceptance," meaning additional revisions. This took another three months. The paper was officially accepted about a month later appeared in print two years after being accepted, four years and four months from submission.

    My own experience involved an 18 month wait after submission to receive a one paragraph rejection letter stating, basically, we don't like urban economics at the AER. And this was after being encouraged to send the paper there by one of my thesis advisers who was on the editorial board of the AER at the time. Of course, he couldn't be the editor for my paper as he was my thesis adviser.

    Finally, so what if the predictions turned out to be incorrect? Don't we learn by taking a look at research that reaches wrong conclusions to see what assumptions or techniques produced the faulty outcomes to, hopefully, no repeat the same errors in future? What more visible place to show off the short comings of your model than in the AER?

    How many papers in string theory have been published over the past ten years without one iota of physical evidence that it makes any sense whatsoever?

    I wish we could adopt the model used by physicists and biologists; anyone who sneezes anywhere near research activity gets their name on a paper, which is invariably three pages long and is either accepted or rejected within a period of months, rather than years.

  12. Hugh

    Most economists, public, private, and in academia have been dreadfully and consistently wrong about everything leading up to and following the bursting of the housing bubble and the financial meltdown. It is hard to overstate how discredited and hollowed out the field has been by recent events. Economists have become the new creationists. They are Marxists after the fall of the Soviet Union. They are the designers of the Titanic, an unsinkable ship that sank on its maiden voyage. They are absurd and wrong.

    Yes, it is bad that a "top tier" "peer reviewed" publication would still publish these modern day astrologers and alchemists but it is far worse that they dominate our country's universities and think tanks and that in government their ideas continue to define and shape economic policy.

    Economics, except as practiced by a tiny few, is a pseudo-science practiced by charlatans. It should be treated as such.

  13. Eric L. Prentis

    Nonplused, old-guard-establishment academics, whose economic and financial theories have led us into this economic debacle, are standing in the way of progress. Not only are truth and being held accountable for incorrect research sacrificed to the imperative of publish-or-perish, but money from banks, hedge funds and private equity firms may be corrupting financial academic journals. The following journals allow direct corporate sponsorship: Financial Markets and Portfolio Management, Journal of Finance (prizes), Journal of Portfolio Management, and Journal of Financial Markets. The following journals have corporate sponsors either as editors or associate editors: Journal of Investment Management, and Journal of Investing. The following journals accept corporate advertising in their journals: Applied Financial Economics, Journal of Financial Economics, Financial Analysts Journal, and Review of Financial Studies. Just try to get innovative empirical research published in these journals that doesn’t support the financial economic dogma in place over the past forty years and the money-making positions of the banks, and see how far you get.

  14. framed

    Hugh: Wow, did Joe Stiglitz kill your dog or something?!

    Eric: Yes, our journals are sponsored by corporate entities that are interested in our research. If you could please contact them and have them send me some money to write papers that support their desired conclusions, I would be happy to do so.

    Yves: I enjoy and value your site, even to the point of suggesting that my students read it on a daily basis. Still, the rather relentless lumping of all economists into one big pile and then pissing all over them (well, us, I guess) is somewhat tiresome. I'm not going to defend the public pronouncements of my colleagues regarding the housing market and the current state of the economy, but I would be happy to take a little time to provide a different perspective about the importance of economics and why it is still important despite its apparent shortcomings if you would like. Just reply with a comment, and I can contact you directly.

  15. Eric L. Prentis

    Responding to Framed:

    Joseph Stiglitz, Nouriel Roubini, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Willem Buiter, Paul Krugman and a few others speak out publicly and offer constructive criticism of our current disastrous economic policy. Banking industry shills: Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin (and others from Goldman Sachs), Henry Paulson, Larry Summers, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner had a hand in gutting financial regulation laws, i.e., Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (1999) and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, all supported by economic theory, and now the US and the world are in an the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

    The current ruinous economic policy, supported by economic theory, of adding more-and-more debt is just a bailout for the big Wall Street banks. Approximately three trillion taxpayer dollars have gone to the banks’ who have bolstered their balance sheets so the crooked, too-big-to-fail banks don’t go bankrupt and now they can pay huge employment bonuses. The on-the-take politicians have saved Wall Street and the stock market, big deal, the banks are still not lending and the economy is getting worse daily! The correct policy is to reduce debt, either through paying it down or by forgiveness, if not, a Japanese style secular bear market awaits. I would rather have the stock market crash and banking crooks who caused this credit crisis be stuck with their bill instead of the US taxpayers. When are we going to save Main Street rather than the greedy b*stards who make political campaign contributions?

    Framed’s comment, “If you could please contact them and have them send me some money to write papers that support their desired conclusions, I would be happy to do so,” speaks for itself.

  16. Hugh

    framed, I would not include Stiglitz among the charlatans. He has been one of the strongest and clearest voices about what has been going on. There are some real economists out there, but this whole trend of Friedmanite, Chicago School, neoliberal, Washington consensus economics is right up there with charms and snakeoil.

    I doubt that Stiglitz was much different before his experiences at the World Bank, and even after, he remarked to a blogger I know that a meltdown really couldn't happen because we had learned our lessons from the Great Depression. I expect he isn't saying that so much anymore.

    But there is a difference between those economists and even non-economists who saw this coming or realized its implications early on and who have been largely right most of the time, and those who never saw the housing bubble for what it was, never saw the dangers posed by derivatives, securitization, deregulation, and easy credit, and even to this day underplay the severity of what is going on, and recommend more of the same failed ideas to fix it.

    The systemic failure in the markets was reflected in a systemic failure in economic thinking. Yet I do not see any questioning of basic assumptions going on in the mainstream of economics. Those Eric mentions, and I would include Dean Baker and Jamie Galbraith, aren't really a part of that mainstream, but then they were right more often than not, so it figures.

  17. Dave Raithel

    Writing as a "Marxist" after the fall of the Soviet Union, let me write:

    1. Marxism ain't Bolshevism. Nor anything else wrong with Russian culture… (let's rape our way to Berlin.)

    2. Publish or Perish.

    3. I argued to my friends that the economy was going to tank sometime in the 2000s before 2008, so we should stick it to a Republican and not vote for Gore. They disagreed, and I was probably only lucky in my guess (at the time) cuz I was looking at a bunch of those Kondratief charts one can find all over the net and that was my only evidence then … and, no, I cannot argue for Kondratief… well, that and the fact that I meditate upon the Prisoner's Dilemma sort of like a koan … This was all before Yves Smith reminded me I'd had a class from Hymen Minksy, who I sometimes think I can understand better than I think I understand Kondratief…

    4. Economists are just unlucky. University libraries are full of journals nobody but desperate Ph.D. candidates ever look at. (See 2 above) I have a funny story about the Journal of Phenomenology in some Australian library, but who cares …

    5. Sometimes, I read what philosophers are writing, and I say: That's interesting. But most the time, what I read makes me want to shove darning needles into my eyes and writhe around on the ground like Michael O'Donahugh doing his impersonation of Elvis shoving darning needles into his eyes… If econ grad students do not have the same reaction reading what their "peers" are writing, see 2 above.

    Oh, they probably have no soul, either…

  18. Anonymous

    I am a reader of the AER and I was astonished to observe that in the last issue of the "papers and proceedings" (of the 121th meeting of the AEA) there were so few articles dedicated to the current crisis. One of them was titled " Why are recessions good for your health?" p.122, May 2009. No comment

  19. Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

    Does anyone know of data showing that high deficits cause recessions, depressions, inflations or tax increases, reduce the availability of lending funds and/or have any other negative economic effects? If you have such data, please contact me at
    Thank you for your assistance.

    Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

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