Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why no question-and-answer sites for economists?

To me, one of the most intriguing online developments in the last several years has been the emergence of sites like Stack Overflow and Math Overflow: online communities where reputation is important and highly technical questions are met with highly technical answers. These sites are clearly superior to the listservs of yore—it's much easier to search for relevant content, and the best answers are "voted up" and displayed at the top of the page. Top contributors are visibly distinguished from the rest of the pack, which encourages good contributions and makes the best answers even easier to find.

At the moment, however, there is no comparable site for economics. Why? It's possible that that one will emerge in time, but I think that economics faces difficulties unlike any in math or programming. Specifically, it's hard to wall off a community from non-experts.

In math, this is easy enough. Everyone has some academic exposure to mathematics (if only in grade school), and virtually everyone who is not qualified to comment on advanced mathematics is self-aware enough to realize it. The vocabulary alone is nearly impossible for an outsider to crack: at the moment, one of the top questions on Math Overflow is "Morphism Between Polarized Abelian Varieties." (Not very inspiring raw material for a troll!)

In economics, however, most people have opinions about the "big issues" regardless of their academic background. How much deficit spending can we tolerate? Is another round of trade liberalization warranted? Should the Fed be loosening monetary policy further? Any site advertising itself as a forum for economists would quickly be overwhelmed by outsiders preaching their own decidedly non-academic opinions. Good luck having a technical discussion about how to specify a vector autoregression when the board is filled with posts about impending hyperinflation and the evils of the Federal Reserve.

The only way to avoid an overwhelming influx of non-economists would be to label the site so that only economists have any clue what it's about. A site titled "Sunspot Equilibrium" wouldn't attract any aspiring investors searching for advice on Google, or monetary cranks chatting about the need to buy gold. With sufficiently aggressive moderation, it could remain the exclusive domain of experts almost indefinitely.

There's always the risk, of course, that a horde of ideologues would run in to do battle with mainstream economists, but I'm afraid that comes with the territory. Math Overflow has it easy; only the wildest cranks believe that the Evil Mathematics Establishment is ruining numbers. Inevitably, however, a lot of people believe just that about economists, and it'll be tough to develop the online institutions that are improving communication in so many other fields.

4 comments:

Daniel said...

You say it here but I think it's worth stressing: economics is less abstract than mathematics. Economic policy is something many more non-economists weigh in on than mathematical policy (is there such a thing?). That's a big obstacle for an "Economic Overflow" site to overcome.

feanor1600 said...

The problems you describe keep the economics Reddit from being very good.
Stack Overflow has been creating spin-off communities using the same software and there is now and Economics Stack Exchange online:
http://economics.stackexchange.com/

It has yet to get off the ground. If we could get it some publicity a critical mass of users could emerge, but I suspect that economics simply does not lend itself well to the format.

Anonymous said...

@feanor1600

Unfortunately, that economics Stack Exchange site you link to has been dead for months. There is, however, a proposal for a site in the "new" Stack Exchange network that's been getting some traction:

http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/1618/economics

In order to move the proposal on to the next "phase" it needs more people to "commit" and vote on the questions.

Chris D said...

I think another problem is that the aggregate predictive power of economists typically appears to be about the same as for non-economists. Not only that, but so far as I can tell, individual economists have *terrible* predictive records, so it's not even completely useful to find a competent economist and only listen to them.

Even in historical situations, there doesn't seem to be enough agreement to provide credibility. And the inability or unwillingness of so many economists to recognize the dotcom and housing bubbles--I figured it out from watching the GSEs share of mortgages and looking at a simple house price:income chart--hasn't done the field any PR favors.