Economics failing us. What about the EconTwitter?

There has been a buzz on EconTwitter and academia lately. I think the first thing I saw on this was Tyler Cowen’s post, where he compared blogs and Twitter. Although I preferred to use Twitter until last year, then I opened this blog for my own reasons. Even though it is a topic that I want to talk about, I postponed publishing this post for a while, but the discussion has been heated in the last few days, and I felt the need to write something.

Let’s start with Tyler’s last post at Bloomberg:

On Twitter (and, earlier, blogs), barriers to entry are very low and a Ph.D. is not required. That can be a good thing, but quality checks are extremely weak.
Here’s the dirty little secret that few of my fellow economics professors will admit: As those “perfect” research papers have grown longer, they have also become less relevant. Fewer people — including academics — read them carefully or are influenced by them when it comes to policy.

I agree with Tyler about the entry barriers, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. I do not think that the current entry barriers in the academy cause us to reach more reliable results. True, we have a high standard today, especially in technical terms, but we cannot deny that many journals fail in terms of quality control. Methods such as appendices, robustness checks, co-authors, etc., may technically give us better quality products. Still, we should not assume that we are reading works free from academic bias or ideological concerns. When I look at today’s journal world, I see inflation of ivory towers. In a world where echo chambers and intellectual bubbles expand so much, I don’t know if there is anything important that high technical barriers bring us in practice.

But it’s not just academia suffers from that; the low barriers on Twitter allow anyone to say “you don’t know anything” on a highly technical issue. In blogs, we place more emphasis on cross-checks, if not as much as in academia; but it’s hard to focus on this aspect of economics on Twitter. Nobody reads floods of 50 tweets like nobody reads journals. So you have to write in simple words, saying very little, and it is pretty difficult to do so.

One solution for this is to set up Substack. Then, you can write longer posts and share your post with a summary. That would be getting around the negative side of Twitter. However, I still can’t understand the difference between Substack and the blogosphere. I do this on this blog (except for features like subscribing, of course). While the blogosphere feels old-fashioned, Substack seems like a more modern and new alternative, but I’m not sure if there is a fundamental difference (feel free to comment if you think there is).

Here’s more:

Actual views on politics are more influenced by debates on social media, especially on such hot topics such as the minimum wage or monetary and fiscal policy. The growing role of Twitter doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Social media is egalitarian, spurs spirited debate and enables research cooperation across great distances.

Although I do not think that this is inherently bad, I believe that such an approach on Twitter can cause problems. We need to discuss whether social media is egalitarian(I don’t think it is). If we mean that anyone can write what they want or be popular with enough engagement, yes, it is. But we have a good reason not to think that this is totally fine.

Consider the barriers and expenses required to release an album in the ’90s. Nowadays, you can release any song/album you want on Spotify, Youtube, or similar platforms with a very low barrier and little expense. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does lead to band/song inflation. The effort you need to spend to discover a high-quality band is increasing day by day. Although Spotify has specific solutions for this, it is not enough, and there is no such solution for EconTwitter. I wonder how many tweets are posted on EconTwitter in just one day and how much effort it takes to read just the good ones. If you’re a multidisciplinary person, let’s say political science, you have to spend an incredible amount of time. I don’t think this is a sustainable thing. One could say the same about journals. Today there are hundreds of thousands of journals, and thousands of papers are published in all of them. We cannot read them all. But I’d already argued that it’s not just Twitter’s problem; I think we have serious academic publication inflation, and obviously, high technical barriers aren’t the solution.

In his Substack post, Joshua Miller argued that “Economics Twitter involves more steelmanning of arguments than twitter.” I partially disagree with this. Of course, Twitter is slightly more personal, but I believe this can push it into more toxicity than more steelmanning arguments. This may not have happened yet, but there is always a possibility. More importantly, it is important to remember that such personalization can further separate echo chambers or bubbles from one another. You could say that blogs make echo chambers worse, but I can’t think of an argument that Twitter is better. Over time, the people you interact with become more like the content you choose to see, and the Twitter algorithm does this on purpose because it naturally wants you to interact with people who are similar to you. Without this mechanism, Twitter wouldn’t make any sense. You may be trapped inside a tiny bubble without realizing it.

Joshua later writes that “Economics Twitter is arguably more plugged in to actually academic discourse than blogs are.” It is true that most of the most successful economists of our time do not have blogs or that top papers are being talked about more on Twitter. Still, I don’t think that necessarily leads to the conclusion that EconTwitter is preferable to blogs. It could be a simple matter of preference, or it could result from any Twitter user sharing something about every part of their life. Most bloggers also have Twitter – they don’t contradict each other. Lastly, I totally agree that Twitter is more fun than blogs; memes are not something we often see in the blogosphere.

Tyler then talks about the ideologization of the economics profession:

As economics has become more ideological, it has also become less forthcoming about its ideologies. And that has led to less intellectual diversity and fewer radical new ideas. That, in a nutshell, is the main problem with the economics profession.

I agree, but economics has never been a profession without ideologies. I don’t think we can think of Hayek, Friedman, or Keynes without an ideological perspective. Likewise, the fact that market monetarists have more libertarian leanings cannot be explained without ideological interpretation. The problem may be more ideologicalization (as Tyler argues), but I don’t think the problem is just about that. Matthew Yglesias talks about this in his latest Substack post:

But in economics, which I do know well, I think it’s a big issue. If someone tweets something you agree with, it is easy to bless it with an RT or a little heart. To take issue with it is to start a fight. And conversely, it’s much more pleasant to do a tweet that is greeted with lots of RTs and little hearts rather than one that starts fights. So I know from talking to econ PhD-havers that almost everyone is disproportionately avoiding statements they believe to be locally unpopular in their community. There is just more disagreement and dissension than you would know unless you took the time to reach out to people and speak to them in a more relaxed way.
My strong suspicion is that this is true across domains of expertise, and is creating a lot of bubbles of fake consensus that can become very misleading. And I don’t have a solution.

I think that’s exactly the problem. The real world is more complex and controversial than the world of academia or Twitter. On an issue where there is no consensus even in the academic world, you might think that there is consensus during your time on Twitter, and this can lead you to wrong conclusions as Twitter is clearly a more left-leaning platform. Likewise, what you repeat in your echo chambers in the world of journals can lead to misinterpretation of the world and a kind of intellectual laziness. I suspect this problem has caused a sort of recession -not only in economics but in the social sciences or academia in general. The post-truth period has an impact on the social sciences becoming this way; this is an undeniable fact. On the other hand, we should not forget the social scientist’s arrogance of being the only person who knows the truth and his/her delusion that he/she has no ideology. That’s why I think the analysis of “ideologization” misses something. The academia’s recession stems from arrogance, non-ideologization, and separation of echo chambers rather than ideologicalization.

Finally, the self-censorship of intellectuals is also a major problem. Whether you interpret this through the woke/cancel culture or something else, it hinders productivity and progress. At this point I must say that I am an exception, albeit partially. I don’t mind taking unpopular stands on economic/political issues on my blog, but I feel compelled to be more careful on Twitter(at least in English).

Like Yglesias, I don’t have a comprehensive solution to this. However, in academia, I recommend quality barriers rather than technical barriers. It is also important to focus on reliable institutes and research centers where top-tier economists work together(Mercatus does this). In this way, we can get a little further away from publication inflation. And so we can compensate for the negative aspects of Twitter. I think academia, Twitter, and blogs can work together; we don’t have to choose one over the other(Substack showed us this). So the “Why not both” approach might be better. For myself, I’ll probably still give more weight to blogs, but EconTwitter looks promising – once we get out of the academic recession.

No one has described the problem with Twitter better than the official Twitter account:

P.S: It is also possible to see the academia as a pyramid scheme in a sense. I remember a story a friend told me. Someone who studied Egyptology had to get a MA/phD after graduation because there was no job in the field, and now he is teaching students at the university a profession that they can’t do any job outside of academia.

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