Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Sociology vs.the Empire



My Bloomberg article on how sociologists could close the salary and prestige gap with economists has gotten some pushback, including this post from Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber (a blogger I like a lot). Basically, I said that if sociology focused a lot more on stats and quantitative modeling, then sociologists would have much more lucrative outside options in consulting and finance and industry, and hence would be able to command higher academic salaries.

There were (at least) two big things I left out of my article, but I'll get to those at the end. First, some responses to Henry.

Harry says that I'm being "imperialist" for economics by claiming that it's natural for policymakers to ask economists - not sociologists - about the economy:
[W]hile it’s true that many sociologists have a complex about economics, the tacit imperialism is compounded by this claim: 
As for economists’ “influence over the economy,” I am going to take a wild guess and say that it isn’t because of their arrogance or hierarchical insularity or “sense of authority and entitlement.” It’s probably because…drumroll…economics is the discipline that studies the economy. If politicians want to know how to reduce cancer rates, they should go to a biologist. If they want to know how to shoot missiles at Vladimir Putin, they should go to a physicist. If they want to know how to boost productivity at U.S. companies, or increase employment, or auction off broadcast spectrum rights, whom should they ask for advice? A sociologist? 
Heaven forfend! After all, it’s not as if there’s a large grouping in sociology devoted specifically to the study of the economy or anything. And if there were such a peculiar tribe of sociologists, economists would surely know all about them!
Sure, I knew about economic sociology - I took an undergrad class on exactly that subject from Mark Granovetter at Stanford. But to think that policymakers are abandon econ whole hog, and replace their teams of advisers with economic sociologists, is stretching the bounds of the plausible. I guess it could happen that the profession that was created to study the economy failed so utterly that they stopped being regarded as the primary experts on the economy, and were replaced by one branch of a different field, but it seems like a very extreme scenario. And it certainly doesn't seem "imperialist" to point out that this is a very extreme scenario. And it certainly doesn't seem "imperialist" to say that expecting this very extreme scenario to be the natural and right course of things is a bit silly. But YMMV.

Henry then points out, aided by numbers from Cosma Shalizi, that statisticians - who of course know more stats than economists - are paid less than economists. This is true. Why? Well, one reason might be the same reason why biostatistics profs get paid a lot more than statistics profs. Biostats is an applied field, and the skills are more transferable to industry. Also, the applied nature of the biostats field indicates that a prof would be willing to work in industry, which pure stats profs might not be willing to do. Finally, there is undergraduate demand, but this is one of the things I left out, so I'll get to it later. But the point is, the biostats/stats disparity seems unlikely to be due to "power", "social construction", "performativity", or the other stuff that Fourcade, et al. and Henry talk about.

OK, let's talk about that other stuff. Henry says that much (most?) of economists' high salary is due to politics, power, and other social factors:
I suspect that much of the assumed authority of economists (just like the authority, in certain policy roles, of international relations scholars like myself), is socially constructed. Expertise is not just a matter of raw talent, whether mathematical or otherwise. It’s a matter of legitimation – of being anointed with the proper sacraments associated with publicly acknowledged expertise in a particular topic. And that is, unquestionably the product of a certain kind of politics, a kind of politics that sociologists have a lot of experience in studying... 
The underlying point of the Fourcade et al. article is that politics and power play a far larger role in determining both the success of economics and the success of economics than economists are prepared to admit in public. Or, more succinctly, sociology provides a much better account of economics’ success than economics itself does.
The last lines of each of those paragraphs are a bit funny - is this the idea that "those who cannot do, teach"? But anyway, here are the problems I have with this thesis:

1. Do political/social factors also explain the high salaries of professors in engineering, biostatistics, operations research, and accounting? If not, why should we expect that econ is substantially different from all of the above? Sure, it's possible that politics explains econ's riches, while skills explain the riches of all of those other fields. But it's not parsimonious. If we're choosing a null hypothesis, shouldn't we choose the null that all of these explanations are the same, instead of the null that econ is a unique outlier?

2. And if we choose the null that econ isn't an outlier, then we have to ask: What support - data or theory - do Fourcade, et al. present for the thesis that econ's high salary is socially constructed? Do they have a theory of how the legitimation happens or happened? Of who conferred the prestige and power upon economists, and why? I didn't see such a theory in their paper. And I certainly didn't see how any of the data they present imply any mechanism for the assigning of econ salaries. No theory, no data - why should I believe this story??

3. Also, I'd like to take the opportunity to rant about the concept of "power". This has always struck me as just another form of economic phlogiston - just another labeled residual, like "technology" or "culture" or "confidence", whose behavior we are expected to take for granted. The reasoning always seems to be something like "Economic outcomes happen because of power. How do you know who has power? Just look at who does better in the economic outcomes!" Some people have actual theories of specific kinds of power, just like some people have actual theories of how technology works instead of just using it as a label for a production-function residual. But I often see people waving their hands at a phenomenon and saying "It's power, of course!" Which doesn't seem very explanatory at all.


OK, this all having been said, I did leave some important things out of my article. 

For one thing, I didn't talk about undergraduates' demand for econ teaching. If undergrads didn't want to major in econ, then universities wouldn't pay them so much. Econ is a popular major. As for why that's true, I suspect that there are many reasons, and that one is that an econ major requires just about the level of quantitative skill that most well-paying white-collar managerial jobs require of graduates. Another is probably the idea that econ majors learn more about business than other majors of comparable or greater technical skill. A third might be that econ acculturates econ majors to business culture - see Henry Farrell on the potential value of business culture. But now I am just tossing out hypotheses - the fact is, econ is a popular major.

A second thing I left out was the fact that in order to "tech up" (i.e. move in a more quantitative direction), sociology will have to raise the technical requirements for both undergrad soc majors and PhD students. There are quantitative sociologists out there, and sociologists with great technical skill, bu they would have to become the overwhelming majority if sociology were to be regarded as a technical field, like econ is. That will almost certainly mean raising the IQ bar for entering sociology at the undergrad and grad level. It will also mean closing the field to many people whose culture has taught them to fear math, to think that they are "not math people". This will change the composition of the sociology field. So a lot of the increase in the average salary of sociologists would come from a change in the background of the average sociologist. Sociologists might regard that as a pointless exercise. It would be about raising the prestige and wealth of the profession more than the people currently in the profession. That may not be something sociologists care about.

But look, salary issues aside, here's the bottom line. Sociologists are fighting what they perceive to be an intellectual battle against economists over whose description of social phenomena - discrimination, family life, etc. etc. - is going to be accepted by society. And it is asymmetric warfare. Sociologists, by (sometimes) continuing to use the tools of literary "critical theory", have brought a nerf gun to a tank fight. We live in a quantitative, data-driven age, and if sociologists want to beat the imperialist economists, they aren't going to do it by talking about "performativity", or by ranting about how arrogant economists are, or by using "power" as a catch-all explanation for unexplained phenomena. That critical theory stuff just doesn't cut a lot of mustard with most people these days.

That's not me being an imperialist. That's not me saying "econ roolz!". That's not me saying that it's a good thing that we live in a quantitative, data-driven age. That's just me delivering the facts as I see them. I might be wrong, but that's how I see the facts.

90 comments:

  1. It's "Fourcade" not "Fourcarde."

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  2. Anonymous6:00 PM

    Noah,

    Thanks for the post. I think this whole debate rests on an assumption that is likely wrong. Namely, this assumption is that 1) Policy makers listen to experts and 2) Policy makers make policy based upon this expert advice.

    It seems to me that policy makers are likely to 1) select experts based upon already existing beliefs (some of whom can only be loosely defined as "experts) and 2) be influenced by a range of non-experts (lobbyists, maybe even the public).

    Maybe economists do have more policy influence that sociologists, but I don't think economists influence is all that great.

    As a sociologist I don't think we believe that we are fighting an intellectual battle with economists. Take racial discrimination. Theories like "statistical discrimination" are scoffed at not because it comes from economics, but because it is bad theory. On the other hand, Schelling's segregation model is very popular is sociology and has been built upon and expanded in various ways.

    Also, your second to last paragraph strikes me as very strange. For some reason non-sociologists often get the impression that sociologists don't use data. My guess is that purely theoretical papers are actually more common in economics than sociology (which is not to say that purely theoretical papers are bad), but I could be wrong. Of course, theory means math in econ and theory is far less likely to mean math in soc. Still, theory expressed in equation form is still theory.

    There are a lot of quanty sociologist who use data to understand social phenomenon like racial discrimination. There are qualitative sociologists who collect data of a different kind to understand social life. But our discipline is very data-driven; I think you would be hard pressed to find any paper in a leading journal or specialty journal that was about nothing but "critical theory". Also, I don't understand why critical theory and data are mutually exclusive.

    You other critiques strike me as somewhat flat also. Its quite possible to marry a discussion of power with sophisticated data analysis. Again, I think you are making a false dichotomy here. Just like economists, we can be theoretical and empirical simultaneously.

    At the risk of sounding mean this critique of sociology rings hollow in the same way that sociologists critique of economics ring hollow. You graciously note that you might be wrong, and I believe that you are.

    There is actually a fair degree of collaboration between soc and econ ppl. at the lower echelons of either discipline. My pet theory is that disciplinary elites tend to cling most tightly to disciplinary distinctions, but, just like you, I could be wrong.

    Lastly, I note that in my view the disciplinary schisms of the past are slowly eroding and must be shattered if we are to understand the world. I don't believe that a system of disciplines which, in large part, was organized over 100 years ago can allow us to generate the knowledge to deal with our increasingly complex world and the increasingly "wicked" problems we face.

    Hopefully you choose to respond! Love the blog.....


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    1. Anonymous9:23 PM

      Sorry, a bit of follow up to my post. It turns out evidence suggests that economists also study "performativity", "social construction" and "critical theory". According to google scholar:

      -213 papers including the word "performativity" have been published in journals with the word "economics" in the title.
      -2150 papers including the word "social construction" have been published in journals with "economics" in the title. I get 219 for "social constructivism" and 376 for "social construction".
      -"Critical theory" turns up in 655 economics papers.
      -"power" give a ton of results, but most of them are likely false positive. I searched for "social power" and got 1170 results from publications with "economics" in the title.

      Alright, I will stop abusing the comment thread with data.....

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    2. Anonymous4:02 AM

      That is interesting, because unlike other social scientists the big philosophical debates (eg Habermans vs Popper) are not taught in economics at all. I am not sure how an economist (who works with things like RBC and DSGE) would be able to handle critical theory or social constructivism.

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    3. Anonymous4:58 AM

      Funny I think economists are paid just because they are so influencial - to shape the public and policy makers' perception. They are paid to explain the economics in a way that benefits 1%:ers. And they have been very productive. Lobbyist are well-paid.

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    4. Anonymous12:08 PM

      They are paid to explain the economics in a way that benefits 1%:

      For sure. An economics degree pays - you can get a job at Goldman Sachs etc finance, industry, plenty of academic jobs around because so many people take the subject.

      Sociology departments are small. It is not a degree that will land you a job that easily. It does not make money for companies. It is no surprise to me that economics graduate departments attracts ex-physicists, engineers, applied mathematicians etc that go into derivative trading and other such jobs after their PHDs, and this demand has made the subject more quantitative and a bit weak on the normative side. Economics attracts applied mathematicians because it is applied mathematics, which attracts more applied mathematicians to it, ,,,,,

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    5. The thing about quantitative theories is that they can be tested with statistics, while informal verbal theories can't easily be tested.

      Also, I don't really think politicians listen to economists much - I think they draw their advice from a bunch of MBAs, public policy people, and political operatives. The Fed listens to economists, though. And business executives probably used to, though less and less these days, from what I hear.

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    6. Anonymous1:29 PM

      Noah,

      Thanks for replying. I'm the first two "anonymous" comments.

      I have mixed feelings on expressing formal theory with math. On the one hand, it makes the theory more amenable to statistical testing. Also, I think it would force theorists to be more clear.

      On the other hand, formal theory (e.g. mathematics) seems more amenable to explaining something like consumer preferences than bigger questions of how social life gets reproduced over time.

      It's funny but I was just talking to an rather respected economist colleague (at least respected in his subfield, which is not one of the more respected subfield in economics) who does a lot of policy-relevant and applied work. He was bemoaning the fact that policy makers don't listen to what him or his peers have to say, much like sociologists do.

      Also, I think its important to note that sociologists put much more emphasis on original data collection. I'm very young in my career and have been involved in about a half dozen projects in which we have collected original data. Economists tend to rely on secondary data to a much larger extent. This may be one reason why economists have a stronger data analysis skill set; while we are out talking to people you can be crunching numbers in your favorite software.

      Anyway, great discussion. I'm sorry for some of the vitriol in the comments...I love economists and I want them to love me!

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    7. You other critiques strike me as somewhat flat also. Its quite possible to marry a discussion of power with sophisticated data analysis. Again, I think you are making a false dichotomy here.

      Sure it's possible - see the link in my post above! There are many kinds of power, too. But just waving one's hand and attributing outcomes to unobserved, unquantified "power" - which I see a LOT of people doing - strikes me as phlogiston. As an analogy, you can actually study and quantify technology, but instead, in some econ theories, it's simply a label given to a residual.

      There is actually a fair degree of collaboration between soc and econ ppl. at the lower echelons of either discipline. My pet theory is that disciplinary elites tend to cling most tightly to disciplinary distinctions, but, just like you, I could be wrong.

      That's interesting, and I haven't seen any of it, but if so, that's cool. I know econ people do collaborate a lot with population studies people, who should be called "sociologists" if they're not already.

      Lastly, I note that in my view the disciplinary schisms of the past are slowly eroding and must be shattered if we are to understand the world. I don't believe that a system of disciplines which, in large part, was organized over 100 years ago can allow us to generate the knowledge to deal with our increasingly complex world and the increasingly "wicked" problems we face.

      Of course. Agreed.

      Sociology departments are small. It is not a degree that will land you a job that easily. It does not make money for companies. It is no surprise to me that economics graduate departments attracts ex-physicists, engineers, applied mathematicians etc that go into derivative trading and other such jobs after their PHDs, and this demand has made the subject more quantitative and a bit weak on the normative side. Economics attracts applied mathematicians because it is applied mathematics, which attracts more applied mathematicians to it,

      This rings true to me...

      I have mixed feelings on expressing formal theory with math. On the one hand, it makes the theory more amenable to statistical testing. Also, I think it would force theorists to be more clear. On the other hand, formal theory (e.g. mathematics) seems more amenable to explaining something like consumer preferences than bigger questions of how social life gets reproduced over time.

      Probably so. But there are still empirical things you can do with more general theories like that, such as the Acemoglu/Robinson stuff on institutions.

      I'm not saying I always believe that stuff, I'm saying you can do it, and it's quantitative, and I think a lot of people do believe it.

      It's funny but I was just talking to an rather respected economist colleague (at least respected in his subfield, which is not one of the more respected subfield in economics) who does a lot of policy-relevant and applied work. He was bemoaning the fact that policy makers don't listen to what him or his peers have to say, much like sociologists do.

      Yep, I think that the idea that economists maintain huge influence over policymakers is somewhat of a red herring, with the big exception being the Fed, and a smaller exception being agencies like the CBO.

      Also, I think its important to note that sociologists put much more emphasis on original data collection. I'm very young in my career and have been involved in about a half dozen projects in which we have collected original data. Economists tend to rely on secondary data to a much larger extent. This may be one reason why economists have a stronger data analysis skill set; while we are out talking to people you can be crunching numbers in your favorite software.

      Actually, that could come in very handy to "big data" companies...

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    8. Anonymous3:50 AM

      Following keenly US debates and revolving doors I have to say it is really political economics. Why there are lobbyist, like GATO Institute, and their house economists, like John Cochrane, if politicians are not listening?

      I mean where do you think the "bunch of MBAs, public policy people, and political operatives" get their arguments, ideas and numbers. Doing late hours with data and making analysis by their own? Really?

      I know you have a good idea how influential R&R's 90 % debt threshold have been at the highest level shaping politics and opinions in Europe? And also in the US. Are R&R really that bad (http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.fi/2013/04/what-if-all-those-times-really-were.html) in analysis or was there something else going on?

      I'm the third Anon (and for a reason).

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  3. I work on the assumption that I should never buy anything if I can possibly avoid it if the pricing is designed by an economist with an informational edge on me - so I never take the train (UK), as they have pricing structures that I simply can't be arsed to deal with.

    Is that an example of economists usefully adding to society (by keeping me off trains), or economists actively contributing to a crude variant of the Lemon theory, by making me fear I am being ripped off? Should they be paid for the latter?

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    1. Anonymous7:34 PM

      It's an example of you being a moron, that's what.

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  4. Economists can save an economy and sociologists are only good for giving fodder for SJWs. So it should be logical to assume that economists, being that they provide value to society, are paid more than sociologists who generally do not.

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    1. Anonymous9:01 PM

      How much does your institute for economic understandery take in for services in being a constant object lesson about Dunning-Kruger?

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  5. When you say sociologists are bringing a nerf gun to a tank fight to win the war over hearts and minds, whose hearts and minds are we talking about? Other academics? The public in general? Other academics may be more impressed by hard quantitative arguments, but I think the general public is a harder sell on this. Going up to a layman with "the coefficients of my regression tell me x and y cause you to be poor" is probably less convincing to that layman than "look around you, w and z cause you to be poor."

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    1. Anonymous9:08 PM

      The people who write the checks as a start.

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  6. Chris9:39 PM

    A few thoughts-

    (1) The first anonymous post is great.

    (2) In responding to Farrell, you seem to have backed off the position in the Bloomberg article a bit. In reading your piece, it did seem that you were suggesting that economics had a sort of monopoly over legitimate economic analysis, in the way that a surgeon has a monopoly over a legitimate hip replacement. (I use "legitimate" to underscore my impression that while you left room for others to contribute, their contributions were somehow lesser or fringe). So you're attacking a bit of a straw man if you frame Farrell's comments as "throwing out the whole hog."

    (3) I think your point that economists are probably more willing to work outside academia (versus statisticians) is likely accurate. However, it also seems correct that firms value the substantive training that economists receive, namely, because they value what we might call the "economic methodology," i.e. rational choice modeling. (That's a crappy description of what economics is, but whatever). I would wager that many people in powerful (sorry) positions see economic analysis as "objective" or "dispassionate," whereas they see something like sociology as an exercise in ideological expression. I don't know if that's fair, and do think that the objectivity perception helps economics grad students/professors.

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    1. In responding to Farrell, you seem to have backed off the position in the Bloomberg article a bit.

      Not really, because I think the recommended course of action is the same. I just didn't fully explain all the reasons why I think it's right, or trace out all the implications of what my suggestion would require - i.e., the wholesale transformation of sociology into a field with a reputation for quantitative skill and hard-nosed empiricism.

      However, it also seems correct that firms value the substantive training that economists receive, namely, because they value what we might call the "economic methodology," i.e. rational choice modeling. (That's a crappy description of what economics is, but whatever).

      In a few cases (e.g. companies hiring economists to design auctions) this is true, but in the case of finance and management-consulting companies, this is not true. And when companies hire macroeconomists, they typically insist that they *don't* do any rational choice modeling, but stick to reduced-form aggregates. They're not stupid!

      I would wager that many people in powerful (sorry) positions see economic analysis as "objective" or "dispassionate," whereas they see something like sociology as an exercise in ideological expression.

      I bet that's very true.

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  7. Anonymous9:57 PM

    >The last lines of each of those paragraphs are a bit funny - is this the idea that "those who cannot do, teach"?

    Nailed 'em!

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  8. Anonymous11:02 PM

    So now your position about math shifts from "We economists know way more math than you guys and so we deserve more!" to "We economists are the goldylocks of math -- we know way more than you CRITICAL THEORY NERF GUN WIELDING LOSER SOCIOLOGISTS and also we know WAY LESS and therefore are WAY LESS SCARY than you abstract statisticians who are asexual and dont care about power and therefore no one trust you."
    The really bizarre part is Noah used to be a physicists before hunger drove him to economics. I guess unlearning physics really helped to get paid, or possibly learning how to fake humanity a bit better. I mean, not in posts like these but in most posts anyway.

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    1. So now your position about math shifts from "We economists know way more math than you guys and so we deserve more!" to "We economists are the goldylocks of math -- we know way more than you CRITICAL THEORY NERF GUN WIELDING LOSER SOCIOLOGISTS and also we know WAY LESS and therefore are WAY LESS SCARY than you abstract statisticians who are asexual and dont care about power and therefore no one trust you."

      Heh. I like how you bring statisticians' sexuality into the unhinged rant.

      The really bizarre part is Noah used to be a physicists before hunger drove him to economics. I guess unlearning physics really helped to get paid

      Nah, if I wanted to keep doing the physics stuff and get paid, I'd have gone into financial engineering or real engineering. I went into econ because I was an ignorant idiot who didn't know what the econ culture was like, and because I couldn't think of anything else to do at the time, and because I wanted to be an econ blogger.

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    2. Anonymous6:12 PM

      Its not a rant, its an examination of your poorly hidden bias inside your poorly articulated prescription. "Just know more math man. But not so much as a statistician because they are way too academic and insular. We economists just know enough of it "
      And sure, all former physicist who have to slum it in economics could have been quants. I could have fucked Angelina Jolie too. In some kind of alternate universe.

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    3. No you couldn't have, let's be realistic here.

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  9. First, I'll repeat an earlier comment that's still relevant:

    From what I've heard they are trying to tech up everywhere. We're a rare two ABD family, my wife in political science, and she says they're really trying to tech up in poly sci. Econ may have physics envy, but it seems like the other social sciences, and business disciplines, have econ envy.

    Of course, high tech, when you have little understanding of the intuition and smart interpretation to reality, can cause horrible and highly destructive stupidity, as we painfully see with so many freshwater economists. Of course, often it's willful stupidity for the ideological cause, and/or keeping prestigious, work that's made you massive money, perks, and prestige. As Max Planck said,...

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    1. Yeah, I realize that a number of sociologists probably realized the need to tech up 10 or 15 years ago, and have been slowly doing it...

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  10. Second, I'll note an interesting anecdote:

    When I first started blogging, about five years ago, I got the attention of Lane Kenworthy. Lane is one of the top sociologists, and an occasional blogger, and like me he's at the University of Arizona. He emailed me asking to meet for coffee. I'm embarrassed to say I started talking to him about economics as if he'd know very little. He surprised me by having excellent intuition and knowledge about basic, and some pretty advanced, micro and macro. He's a really really smart guy; I was very impressed, and embarrassed about how I was initially talking.

    Nonetheless, from the little work of his I've really seen, the statistics looks lower tech than it could and should be, and than what I usually see in prestigious econ and finance work. But, I haven't really seen his work much at all to judge, so I could be way off. So I wonder again how much less tech'ed up and econ savvy top sociologists really are today.

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    1. Anonymous11:04 AM

      Any effort to compare the math in other disciplines to the math in economics needs to take into account that math has long been a substitute for understanding in economic writing. Establishing micro-foundations has, for many, become a ritualistic part of formal writing. Just a for instance. You narrow your comment to "prestigious" econ work, but that's a bit thin. It also has a comic element - "prestige" is exactly what a sociologist would expect you to say.

      Sociology ought to aim at just the math necessary to make intellectual progress. So, for that matter, should economics.

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    2. Anonymous6:10 PM

      I read some sociology and some of them are starting to get up to speed with identification issues, but there is a lot of throw a bunch of variables into a stats package and call it a regression. No sense of the sophisticated view of non-experimental data you get in even a mid-ranking field journal in economics.
      Henry seems to really be in the grip of this critical theory that says technical advanced in social sciences aren't possible. But, really the stats the political science and economics are doing are miles better than they were 10 or 20 years ago and the quantitative part of sociology has to come up to that. It also means that the statistics are much more difficult and subtle to learn. My observation is that sociology undergrads do not dedicate the time to learn those skills. You need to be taking course where you spend 10+ hours a week outside of class learning the programming, math, and conceptual skills.

      The case study methodologies of sociology are quite valuable and should be rewarded more in the market. It seems to be close to a lot of consulting work. I wonder if, at the current equilibrium, sociology degrees signal lazy to employers.

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    3. Yes, looking over soc papers indicated to me that there is lots of data work in sociology but the techniques are rudimentary and/or sloppy compared to, say, labor econ.

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  11. Anonymous4:05 AM

    Your remarks about power are very naive. You are busy guy but I suggest you take a basic 101 in political philosophy.

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  12. Corkscrew5:03 AM

    My very strong perception is that, although both sociology and economics have quant groups within them, in economics they rule the roost a lot more. Over the last hundred years, economics has been systematically purging itself of the successors of the Scholastics: those groups that rely on discussing matters in committee until a semblance of knowledge is reached (coughAustrianeconomicscough). I don't get the impression that sociology has yet gone through the same process - it still seems strongly influenced by the Continental philosopher-kings of waffle (Derrida et al).

    Henry's article, and the first anonymous comment, seem to be suggesting that this view is completely outdated. Sociology only looks like it's 40% postmodernist waffle to me because I'm viewing it from the outside, in the same way that economics looks like it's 40% free-market libertarianism to Joe Sixpack. From the inside, they both look moderately quantitative and rigorous, they're just built on different primitives (money vs power).

    Which view is correct? Is anyone able to comment definitively (preferably with data)? If the latter view is true, and the average sociology major really is as technical as the average economics major, that would strongly support Henry's view that the pre-eminence of economics over sociology is basically a historical/political accident: economists got into a position of power first, and are spawn-camping the think tanks.

    (I am slightly skeptical of this because most think tanks and consultancies I've come across seem to recruit based on technical skills first and discipline second. I've met a surprising number of immunology grads in London...)

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    1. This said a lot of what I wanted to say, but better than I was able to say it.

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    2. Mentions of "Derrida" in sociology articles, 2010-2013: 74, or prevalence of 0.46%. Your "very strong perception" is inaccurate.

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    3. Patrick Caldon7:56 PM

      1. Many of these comments criticise econ for using "math as a substitute of understanding" ...

      2. But many (implicitly) state that if sociology is substantially quantitative, and is therefore good ...

      Well which is it? I go for (1).

      I argue that a well executed piece of qualitiative work, based on e.g. interviewing people, case studies, life/oral history, that sort of thing is hard. It's very hard to do well, and requires lots of discipline and expertise. It requires a lot of study to work out how to do it well. And we - ultimately the public - can get a lot of insight from this. Yes, there is pomo nonsense, but there is also careful work which delivers insight in the pomo vein which comes from thinking carefully about power structures.

      By comparison, banging out a couple of trivial theorems which are the consequence of a mountain of definitions - theorems that no-one will ever hear or care about - is perhaps easy. Finding a set of data of FRED and plugging it into SAS/Gauss/R until a few magic p < 0.05 stars appear is easier - you could probably code it up in R and also code up something to write shitty econ papers for you. And we don't get a lot of insight from that.

      In the end if you're analysing one-off events and individuals rather than populations, it gets hard to model them with a probability distribution. But you can think about case studies and chains of causality and consequence, and draw insight from this.

      We see economists on TV. Saying we might exist in a hierarchy of power relationships in which the economist acts a kind of Roman priest grovelling over the liver and entrails of the macro data, and making incomprehensible pronouncements about the future - well it gives a lot of insight into economists talking on TV and we can argue the (qualitative) evidence in favour and against the proposition. Saying there's a marginal benefit to the TV company having the economist on TV delivers no insight.

      Delete
  13. I wonder what sociologists think of the concept of the representative agent.

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    1. Anonymous9:13 AM

      Fortunately they do not waste a lot of time and work thinking about it.

      Delete
  14. Phil Koop8:11 AM

    "The last lines of each of those paragraphs are a bit funny"

    I don't think so. I think that Henry is just throwing your own argument back in your face: where you say that economists specialize in the study of, duh, economics, he points out that sociologists specialize in the study of, duh, sociology - including the sociology of economists.

    In that connection, do you not perceive a certain symmetry between Henry's claim, without theory or empirical support, that the earnings of economists are high for special reasons, and your own claim, equally without theory or support, that the earnings of statisticians are low for special reasons? You have nothing more than a just-so story to explain this. I think you are again vulnerable here to your own line of attack.

    It's not that I don't sympathize with your position. It's just that I don't think you are doing so well at holding up the side.

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    1. I think that Henry is just throwing your own argument back in your face: where you say that economists specialize in the study of, duh, economics, he points out that sociologists specialize in the study of, duh, sociology - including the sociology of economists.

      Those are obviously not comparable.

      In that connection, do you not perceive a certain symmetry between Henry's claim, without theory or empirical support, that the earnings of economists are high for special reasons, and your own claim, equally without theory or support, that the earnings of statisticians are low for special reasons? You have nothing more than a just-so story to explain this.

      But I can point to the high salaries of engineering and biostats and OR and accounting profs as clear examples of cases in which politics is almost certainly NOT driving salary differences. Henry postulates that only one field - econ - is dramatically overpaid because of politics.

      Because of this, I don't think the claims are symmetric at all.

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  15. ok A little aside - re the economists are maths nerds meme. It just isn't true. When I studied economics, I did courses in computer science and maths that were outside the faculty. I could only do maths (pure & applied) for two years because of timetable clashes. And I was the best math student in the faculty (at least the best student from economics in the math courses). And people of my vintage are still active in economics. So where does this meme come from?

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    1. Anonymous9:16 AM

      Economist's maths does not impress real mathematicians. But they know enough to bedazzle people in a lot of other social sciences.

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    2. Some economists are math nerds - micro theorists and econometricians, usually, but also some other folks. But most economists are not. They just think they are. The other day I heard a macro guy refer to econ as "math".

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    3. Derivs5:47 AM

      Funny, yesterday I heard a macro econ guy once again make the all too often made comment about raising interest rates to defend a currency from weakening further.
      As always, my response is that all 4 pieces of the puzzle are there to show that mathematically. Please show me the change in expected value that should cause me to move my money to that currency. Rarely do they even know what I am alluding to.
      The problem is that all you need to have fulfilled to be an "Economist" is a total of 10 core classes at the undergrad level, and I don't think you are even required to take accounting. All C's will get you there.
      So yes, there is an enormous range of abilities among economists.

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    4. Anonymous5:05 PM

      Anonymous -- oh so true (having hand-held finance folk working on theses, strolled thru arrow et al)

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  16. Anonymous9:32 AM

    So you've changed your prescription to sociologists from an unqualified "tech up" to "tech up _and_ be willing to work in the pharm or finance industries _and_ have enough domain knowledge to be hired."

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    1. Not exactly that - I think consulting, management, and data science are the fields that sociologists should look to for outside options.

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    2. Anonymous1:38 PM

      OK, so you've changed your prescription to sociologists from an unqualified "tech up" to "tech up _and_ be willing to work in the [fill in the blank] industries _and_ have enough domain knowledge to be hired in the [fill in the blank] industries." The point is that your model: superiority = f(teched-up) doesn't have much explanatory power.

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    3. Well, since I did talk quite a bit about "outside options" in the Bloomberg piece, and since that was the basis for my entire theory, and since I specifically mentioned those fields in the piece, it doesn't really feel like I've "changed" my prescription one bit. ;-)

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    4. Anonymous4:40 PM

      Well, what you wrote was: "If sociologists want to crack this bastion of economists’ “superiority,” they need to tech up with statistics." But as I see now, your implied mental model was: superiority = f(teched-up, prestigious outside options). So your implied prescription was to get teched-up with statistics AND cultivate prestigious outside options. See, models are our friends ;-)

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    5. I think it is going to be very hard for you to argue that I'm just now mentioning outside options in consulting/finance as the source of salary differences, since I put those things pretty front-and-center in my Bloomberg article.

      Very hard, that is, if your goal is not looking ridiculous... ;-)

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  17. I think the thing that bothers most accountants, and engineers (and etc...) is that economists can be so completely wrong without hurting their career. If you were to follow the investment advice of Ben Stein, for example, you would have bought a new home in 2008, and sold down your stock portfolio in 2010.

    If an engineer or accountant were to be wrong even 10% of the time, we would be fired. Yet economists are free to quote (exclusively) false partisan narrative without any fear. In fact, economists get invited back simply because they are "controversial" or "entertaining", as opposed to "correct".

    People in power do not "take their advice". Instead, they trot out economists who they know (in advance) will defend the actions the politicians have already chosen. Did George Bush take the advice of Greg Mankiw? Hardly. He hired Mankiw because he knew (in advance) that Mankiw would be a strong spokesman for tax cuts.

    A hand puppet, or Arthur Laffer, would have been too obvious.

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    1. I don't think Ben Stein is an economist.

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    2. Yet still, when he appears on Fox News, the screen doesn't say "Game Show Host". http://madmikesamerica.com/2014/04/ben-stein-only-government-sanctioned-religion-can-save-americas-drunk-and-lazy-poor/fox_of_ben_stein_120517a-615x345/

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    3. Anonymous3:45 PM

      That was always my thought. If I meet an expert in a field, I expect that he will completely out perform me in his/her area of expertise. I know I will never beat a master chess player or get down the mountain faster than a professional skiier. So economists should be able to out perform the average person in the market. The good lord knows they are constantly telling us rates are too high/low, market is too high/low, currency is too high/low.
      So how many of the economists posting here have opened that e-trade account and tested their mettle? I bet almost all of them have, but they will never mention the results.
      It seems to me that only by not participating can they call themselves experts.
      Does this fact cause anyone dissonance?

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    4. Each year, about this time, Barry Ritholtz (and a few others) compile the investment forecasts made by economists at the major brokerage firms, and compare them to actual returns.

      Last year was a great year for the exercise. The most accurate forecast in the groupt (Citibank) was off by 11.6%. The least accurate in the group (Wells Fargo) was off by 29.7%. The average error was more than 17%.

      Part of the reason such predictions are spectacularly wrong is that they are created by "bank" economists, who are trying to anticipate stock market trends based on political events.

      These are the worst possible people to ask about the impact of political decisions. Banks have demonstrated (repeatedly) that they have little understanding of how the economy really works. If they met an economist who did, they certainly would not hire him.

      Famous politicians who venture into the stock market fare much better. Rather than take advice from economists, they take advice from insiders. (They *give* advice to economists.)

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  18. Sometimes it is hard to figure out an underlying rationale for income discrepancies in various fields. There are market forces, of course, but sometimes the rationales are not easy to see. Pediatricians generally make less money than internists, orthopedic surgeon make more than general surgeons despite having a much easier life. A guy who can throw a ball or a woman who can really shake her booty make more money than a dozen professors. The deep principle is that life is not fair. Dr. Smith should not have rubbed the sociologists' nose in it.

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    1. "The deep principle is that life is not fair."

      Yep.

      Van Gogh died a pauper and Laffer is a millionaire.

      Delete
  19. Anonymous12:15 PM

    "I guess it could happen that the profession that was created to study the economy failed so utterly that they stopped being regarded as the primary experts on the economy, and were replaced by one branch of a different field, but it seems like a very extreme scenario."

    Really? You being ironic or just unaware? You do realize that most people regard econ as a failed field. Mainly because most economist people know are just hired guns to provide an intellectual veneer to whatever the latest scheme is. They may not be the best econs but they are the best known and, not for nothing, the best paid.

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    1. Really? You being ironic or just unaware? You do realize that most people regard econ as a failed field.

      I doubt it. Most people regard certain branches and ideas of econ as failed fields, but not econ as a whole.

      Delete
  20. In the humanities, a pointless show of erudition is called pedantry. In the social sciences, a pointless show of mathematics is called economics.

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    1. In both the humanities and the social sciences, a pointless show of erudition is called research. Economists just choose to express their pointless erudition in the language of mathematics rather than the language of critical theory. This has little effect on the relative substance of the two instances of pedantry - I think some econ theorizing has much more in common with critical theory than either would like to admit.

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  21. Is it too much to ask to take even a cursory look at mainstream sociology before writing such a thoroughly inaccurate post? Every major journal of sociology contains mostly quantitative research. Every significant sociology Ph.D. program emphasizes quantitative modeling. According to JStor Data for Research, of 16,128 sociology articles published between 2010 and 2013, "performativity" was in 92, or 0.5%; "critical theory" in 125, or 0.8%; "coefficient" in 1,460, or 9%; "quantitative" in 1976, or 12.2%; "regression" in 2280, or 14.1%; and "data" in 6789, or 42.1%. Since we live in a "data-driven age" (whatever the f*ck that means) I thought you might want some, you know.... data.

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    1. This is obviously crapy use of data, since we wouldn't expect terms as specific as "performativity" to be as general as terms like "coefficient", "regressions", or "data". The comparison is absurd. You're just angry and emoting - you haven't stopped to take a good hard look at the possibility that I might be right.

      But you should.

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    2. you know, doing nonparametric heteroskedastic multifactorial analysis doesn't matter if the underlying ideas and data aren't good

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    3. Bless your heart, Noah. You provide absolutely no data but think an abstract critique of actual data is convincing. Your case is false because you haven't bothered to assess whether your independent variable -- the degree of quantitative logic in sociology. You still haven't bothered. You don't like my terms? Find your own. Dimwit.

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    4. I still don't see any concrete arguments, Perrin!

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    5. I have no particular argument (or complaint) about the relative import of the two disciplines to public policy, if that's what you mean. I'm simply pointing out that the explanation you provide cannot be true as a simple matter of empirics: the hypothesized cause is not true, therefore it cannot cause the effect of interest. I provided specific, empirical measures demonstrating that your claim (that sociology is not mostly quantitative) is false. You don't like those measures; fair enough. Provide some others. But, particularly given your "data-driven" puffery, they need to be *measures*, not your ignorant biases. What any accurate measure will demonstrate is that the vast majority of mainstream sociology is indeed quantitative and data-driven, so the causal claim you pursue in this article cannot be correct.

      You asked, too, if I am angry. No, hon -- just amused at the hackneyed self-importance.

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  22. So what that econ profs get paid more than sociology ones? The econ profs get paid less than those in information systems, finance, accounting, management, and marketing. In b-schools, we are the eqjuivalent of the sociologists, although smarter and more scholarly than that crowd, whine, whine, whine.

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  23. In the tree of knowledge, economics is just a subfield of sociology, since sociology is the study of social facts and that the economy is a social fact. So I don't see why economists couldn't call themselves sociologists and why economic sociologists aren't just called economists. Also they should have a unified methodology.

    Sociologists could sure use better stats skills and more mathematical modelling but they also have empirical methods that could be helpful to economists. Economists do almost no qualitative work and that's a problem because when they have to interpret data they can solely rely on introspection to come up with new theories. A better way would be to go on the field observe how people behave and ask them about it like sociologists do.

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    1. "Also they should have a unified methodology."

      They should, should they? Because it is nice and neat? It would seem studies ought to be tailored to their subjects, rather than to a invented demand for unified "methodology." (Since you are talking about the methods they use rather than a study of methods, really that should be :unified method.")

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    2. I don't think it's necessary to have a unified theoretical methodology. Operations research doesn't. Finance doesn't. Psych doesn't. And to be honest, econ's methodology is getting more and more eclectic, with things like gravity models, behavioral game theory, etc.

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  24. What data do you have that says that if the POTUS or congress asked for advice on the economy, they would get better advice, on avg, from economists (aei, cato, hayek, keynes) then from sociologists ?

    since you pride yourself on being from a data driven field, you have, I'm sure, lots of data.

    In any event, economics is about people; eg, different firms with similar inputs have different productivity; this is about people and processes, and, therefore, is in the domain of sociology or psychology or management.

    Finally, what do people want ? I think that people want a secure, better future for themselves and their progeny.
    Certainly a large component of better is more joy, which falls into the domain of psychology
    Lemma; If all the money spent on economics was reset to zero, and the funds used to enable psychology classes in every high school, all four years, and if the students gain even the slightest understanding of themselves, or prejudice, or hatred, would not the world be a better place ?

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    1. What data do you have that says that if the POTUS or congress asked for advice on the economy, they would get better advice, on avg, from economists then from sociologists ?

      None, and in fact much of the advice they get is from MBAs, public policy people, professional writers and polemicists, etc.

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  25. I wanted to respond a bit to your critique of the concept of "power" as some kind of meaningless catch-all for things we don't understand. One of my primary complaints with the field of economics is that it does a poor job of grappling with the concept. (I would further argue that this blindness is something of an adaptive measure. My trade professor was an endowed chair by Hundai, for god's sake.)

    Power is not something you can model easily because it's hard to quantify, it's not nearly as fungible or durable as money, and it's only tangentially related to markets (having power in a market is basically the definition of a market not working). But while it might seem like phlogiston to economists, understanding (non-market) power is basically the entire purpose of another discipline of social science (political science) and the fact that economists only understand it in very limited market terms doesn't mean that power doesn't intrude into economics far more often than most economists would care to admit.

    Yes, in some instances power can be adequately modeled. That doesn't mean you should ignore it when it can't be. It's only a residual when you rely on a very limited set of modeling tools.

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  26. Noah,

    You are using your blog to settle issues that should have been handled where you published your columns. It seems that your lengthy drivels would be highly edited or worse. Secondly, your comments/drivels become one sided as we have to accept your interpretation of the poor fellow who is being driveled at!



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    1. Wow, what trenchant, penetrating insight.

      Delete
  27. Anonymous2:56 AM

    On your point 2. Economists got power by legitimizing many conservative policies since the Reagan era, such as deunionization, deregulation, free trade, etc.

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    1. What power did they get?

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    2. Anonymous1:10 PM

      You answered it in your post. A profession that pays, Why does it pay? Because it can do something useful for people with influence (right wing politicians and bankers)? Does that give economists power? Yes. If they dumped the market efficiency hypothesis and the starting point of analysis was market failure and assumptions of agent behaviour based on empirical evidence, would it be a powerful discipline? No. Why? Because it would be useless to the powerful. Would it get closer to the truth even if it was not as useful to the powerful? Very likely, yes.

      Delete
    3. So did *universities* pay economists more because of their political beliefs?

      Delete
  28. I totally see hedge funds and money managers hiring economic sociologists to examine to social construct surrounding derivatives pricing. Or, Not.

    Reality check: If want to hire someone with a get 'er done attitude who can interpret business data and tell me what it might (or might not) mean, I hire someone with an economics, finance (or sometimes engineering) background. Despite all the straw men that seem to be getting flamed, the worst economists to hire are the ones peevishly focused on this or that theory or model. Economists as a whole (like good engineers) look at what works, what does not, and are willing to try new things (like behavioral finance, experiments, or randomized controlled trials for govt policy).

    On the other hand, If I want to hire a bolshevik capable of setting fire to imperialist straw men, I'll look for a sociologist. Not much demand for bolsheviks in business these days.

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    1. "I totally see hedge funds and money managers hiring economic sociologists to examine to social construct surrounding derivatives pricing. Or, Not."

      Given that George Soros has essentially operated on precisely that basis for the past several decades you may want to at least try to understand what you're talking about before you damn it. You could start with Donald McKenzie's work. But then the rest of your post makes clear that whatever you may or, more likely, may not know about finance, you certainly don't have a clue about most of academic sociology.

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  29. On one hand all of what you wrote here and on Bloomberg is right. On the other, you fell into a trap of demonstrating the sociologists' point.

    They wrote their observations about economists, basically that you're privileged and arrogant. You correctly retorted that economists study hard for their money, and choose relatively good things to study if one wants to make money as a professor.

    But then you go on to presumptuously castigate the sociologists for being jealous whiners who don't understand what people are willing to pay for. And there you sound rather like the college Republican who writes the nasty letter in to his student daily accusing some idealistic social critic columnist of being a jealous loser.

    I think people who enter sociology know full well they're not going to make as much money as they could in other fields. And I think that's also reflected in the way they write papers, and in the kinds of papers their journals like to publish. They are just idealistic people who believe they are studying things that are valuable for their own sake, even if they earn less money and demonstrate fewer marketable technical skills to private employers.

    You're a rather idealistic person yourself, so it's surprising you missed that.

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    1. Thanks for pointing out the drivel of Noah. Noah's arguments are absurd; he values a field by how much it pays. He also has trouble in accepting sociology as a viable economic activity.

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    2. Well, KV's drivel aside, Tom you are absolutely right. But I'm not castigating sociologists for being idealistic and caring about things other than money. I'm just saying *if* they want to earn more money, this is the way.

      Now, I also could have written that "teching up" would be very useful in academic battles against the Beckerians. Even idealists might care about that, right? And I did put that in the bottom of this post.

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  30. Noah,

    You suggest that critical theory et al. is akin to bringing a nerf gun to a tank fight.

    Here's the thing: there is life beyond the quantitative analysis of society. I am part of the quant sociology tribe. However, I have read critical and qualitative research that illuminates issues in ways that wouldn't be possible with quant focused research. Or, they suggest new areas for for quantitative research to go.

    Some people in sociology may not score high on IQ tests, true, but perhaps they have other available insights to the field. The "intelligence" measured by the IQ test, is, of course, a social construction.

    Let me give an example. My knowledge of "human trafficking" consisted of what is presented in the popular media. Indeed, this seems to be the extent of knowledge on the issue by many academics who are now using "big data" to fight human trafficking. Instead of crunching numbers on the "problem", taking a step back and examining the actors and social forces involved in a "social issue" is useful. My opinion on human trafficking was totally changed by an article written from a critical theory framework:

    http://www.policeprostitutionandpolitics.com/pdfs_all/Trafficking%20All%20/Related%20Articles%20various%20sources%20pro%20sex%20worker/2004%20The%20Perverse%20Politics%20of%20Four-Letter%20Word:%20Risk%20and%20Pity%20in%20the%20Securitisation%20of%20Human%20Trafficking.pdf

    The information illuminated in the article urges a reconceptualization of human trafficking. There is use to these areas in sociology. We do need to become economists-lite.

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