comments about economics online seminars

Last week, Jeff Smith wrote about the situation of economics seminars during the epidemic. Now, they are online and that raises a number of questions. Will these seminars take on gate keeping roles within economics? How will the econ seminar culture translate online? Two brief responses from me:

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less interested in the “econ style” form of seminar. For those who don’t know, the “econ style” simply means constant interruption. My view now is that I’d prefer to hear a complete and flawed presentation than to have the person get caught up in tiny details. Why? I want to assess ideas. Many papers have strengths and weaknesses. How can we get to strengths and repair weaknesses if the speaker can’t even get to the end? Honestly, it’s anti-knowledge.

This is not an excuse for weak thinking. I’m happy to tear a paper up – but at least let’s see the whole story. So if online seminars soften up the econ style presentation, I’m all for it. My one exception is papers given by early graduate students. They literally do need line by line work on papers.

In terms of gate keeping, I’d like to see some forms of academia become decoupled from specific departments.  Like the rest of academia, most institutions within economics are built on social networks (e.g., certain prizes and journals in econ intimately tied with specific programs). Maybe the virus will generate new networks via the construction of new online seminars. Or maybe it will be the same disciplinary elites running the biggest webinars. Anyone want to take a bet?



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Written by fabiorojas

April 15, 2020 at 12:29 am

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  1. Having seen history, soc, and economics seminars, which run roughly from “speaker reads like you’re a book talk” to “friend telling you what you’ve been working on” to “gauntlet”, I think I prefer the econ seminar. The reason is that the discussion in econ actually resembles what people, including referees and future readers, think about the paper. Indeed, I would say that econ seminars even at “tough” places are *still* not as rigorous/critical in their feedback as future informed readers will be. My evidence is that at the three places I’ve attended many seminars, the hallway conversations afterward are uniformly more honest in their evaluation.

    To be honest, many economists at interdisciplinary seminars are often sitting there checked out after 15 minutes, because the speaker has made statements that are logically inconsistent (particularly in fields where “theory” means citing a complex A then B claim not by deriving B from A, but from citing some authority who has worked on a similar topic), or done something ridiculous statistically, or ignored obvious alternative causal stories. Of course we want to assess ideas, but what is there to assess if the evidence is wrong? Of course pompous self-promoting “questions” are a problem, but honestly, this is not what I have experiences as a speaker or an audience member: when I present, the questions I get are almost always useful for pushing back at weak points in the paper that really do need to be cleaned up.

    Cosma Shalizi, I believe, often quotes a line (of some providence I forget) that there is a difference research and thought. At its best, economics seminars are about punishing thought that is not research. The tiny details actually matter! Not naming names, obviously, but over the past few years I have seen multiple job market talks from rock star junior candidates in sociology that make elementary statistical mistakes (on the level of, the primary claim of the paper is the wrong sign).

    On webinars: they will disappear with Covid. Who wants to watch someone read slides with light interactivity if they don’t have to?



    April 15, 2020 at 4:29 am

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