< Back to front page Text size +

An economist's confession: I have sinned against clarity

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 23, 2009 02:48 PM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

At least David R. Hakes, an economist at Northern Iowa University, has the courage to admit what he did: He purposefully made an article pointlessly complicated, hoping that peacock-tail math and dense prose would impress other academics (or, at least, that other economists would pretend to be impressed, so they wouldn't be tagged as unsophisticated). Sadly, the gambit worked, so Hakes can't promise this will be his last offense. He knows, however, that what he did was wrong.

"It is with apologies to my research and writing mentors that I report the following events," he writes, in the September issue of "Econ Journal Watch."

The story began, Hakes writes, when an economist friend of his concocted a complex, equation-driven explanation of how some companies used certain kinds of warranties to extract "rent," or unearned money, from their customers. Trouble was, no one could follow the friend's argument.

Hakes, who grasped the gist immediately, thought the argument deserved broad circulation. Impressed with Hakes's explanatory skills, the friend recruited him to be a co-author. After some labor, Hakes writes, "We managed to reduce the equations in the paper to six. At this stage the paper was perfectly clear and was written at a level so that it could reach a broad audience."

Too clear, apparently: When the authors submitted the paper to a journal, the referees deemed the argument "self-evident." In response, the editor suggested "generalizing" the conclusion with some mathematical formulas. So Hakes and his friend went back to work, re-complicating their work. "The resulting paper had fifteen equations," Hakes writes, in his mea culpa, "two propositions and proofs, dozens of additional mathematical expressions, and a mathematical appendix containing nineteen equations and even more mathematical expressions."

"I personally could no longer understand the paper and I could not possibly present the paper alone," he added. "…Even for mathematicians, the paper may no longer pass a cost-benefit test. That is, the time and effort necessary to read the paper may exceed the benefits received from reading it."

Hakes's professors in graduate school had warned him against mistaking the complex for the profound, and he thought he'd absorbed the lesson. But the professional culture drives good economists to do bad things.

Economists even have a term for what Hakes did: preference falsification. Many economists, like Hakes, agree that clarity is highly important. But they're also willing to fake a different point of view, if a publication credit is on the line.

"I am now part of the conspiracy," Hakes laments, "to intentionally make simple ideas obscure and complex."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

 
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
contributors
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

archives

Browse this blog

by category