Saturday, August 1, 2020

Cultures of abuse and science fictions

All economists should read the post written by Claudia Sahm about the culture of abuse that she has experienced practicing the job of academic economist. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find an economist that has not experienced examples of abuse in this hierarchical and clubby profession. The experience is worse for women and for ethnic minorities. Anyone who is not a candidate for the Nobel prize (that is, most of us), and even some Nobel prize winners, have been victims of intimidation and abuse by the gatekeepers of the profession. I have been very lucky to know exceptions to this unfortunate trend, professors that did not need to be abusive or intimidating to keep high standards, thanks to whom I decided to have an academic career when I probably had other options in my life. But especially when you don't satisfy the stereotype of a typical profesional economist, when you have some stain, you will receive more or less subtle messages during your life that will tell you that you are not always welcome in the club. It happened to me when I received an intimidating and sadistic discussion in a seminar by a colleague PhD student in Florence, probably encouraged by a Professor who thought that, given that I had studied history before economics, and that I had a previous experience in politics, I deserved a lesson. That colleague student is today a Dutch right wing controversial politician that has led the opposition to the EU solidarity funds in his country (other Dutch colleagues have opposed him in the social networks). Other times, I have been reminded with patronizing comments that I was not a conventional economist, which to me is a compliment but not to the patronizers. In any case, I cannot complain, and perhaps as an academic I have later even incurred in less than friendly or altruistic behavior. Like a tweet that Sahm has received from a student of hers, we have all probably fallen at some point into the too many times dominant culture of success and hierarchy.
I am not sure that it is exclusive of economics. Perhaps there is a surplus of arrogance in economics as compared to other social sciences. There is certainly a culture of abuse in politics and other competitive activities, although in my personal experience I would say that politics today (at least center left politics) is less hierarchical and abusive than 30 years ago (is it because there are more women in important positions?), but of course I can only speak subjectively and with anecdotal evidence. In other academic disciplines, abuse and hierarchy are not infrequent. In his book "Science Fictions" scientist Stuart Ritchie speaks of intimidation even among medical doctors experts in the Alzheimer's disease, as some try to protect their favourite explanations of the illness. In this excellent book, the author gives plenty of past but also contemporary examples of non-random scientific errors (including in economics; Christensen and Miguel have an interesting article on how to minimize them in our field) due to fraud, incompetence, bias (including publication bias) or hype. All of us could add examples of unethical reporting of scientific economic results, to the few ones reported in the book. The competitive nature of scientific careers provides plenty of incentives to incur in unethical behavior. Of course, the answer is not to be skeptical of science, but to improve science, precisely because it is a public good about which we cannot afford to be skeptical. We need an ethical revolution in economics and other scientific disciplines, one that stops the culture of intimidation and abuse, opens science to all talents, and removes fraud and conscious or unconscious manipulation of scientific results.

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