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An economist's confession: I have sinned against clarity

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

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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."

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