Down from the Ivory Tower

Over last couple of days there’s been an interesting debate, primarily on Irisheconomy.ie ( see original post here and a response here) and to a lesser extent on the twitter machine, about the role of academics, in particular academic economists, in media. This debate emerged from an exchange which I had with Richard Tol on twitter.

Richard, for those that arent known, is an extraordinarily talented economist, Dutch by origin, research professor at the economic and social research Institute, a world expert on the economics of energy, climate change, carbon and other such . While rankings and ratings are a game that anybody can play, and while there is always a rating or ranking that will suit you, by any metric he is world class.

Richard’s premise, expressed in his original post, seems to be in essence that “the cobbler should stick to his last”. In an economic context this, as I read it, implies that one should stick to commentating strictly on matters where one has a demonstrated expertise. Demonstrated expertise in Richard’s perspective comes primarily, if not exclusively, from publishing articles in scholarly journals that are subject to rigorous peer review. His concern is primarily that if economists speak about areas outside of their “demonstrated expertise” as defined above then people may well be misled. Indeed they might, perhaps as commentating is a market for lemons, be misled by charlatans and snake oil merchants. Sticking Prof under somebody’s byline, in his view, might give people the impression that the person speaking is actually an expert in the area on which he (and it usually is a he) speaks. Its a reasonable fear. However, I think its overblown.

Richard is Dutch. Although he has lived here some considerable time it strikes me he’s missed out on crucial Irish characteristic . A very famous writer once said “the Irish are very fair people, they never speak well of each other”. The “I knew him when he hadn’t and arse to his trousers” approach to taking people down a peg or 12 can be extremely painful. It does however serve to anchor one. Just as no man is a hero to his valet, very few Irish people are heroes to the vast majority of the Irish population. As a nation were all too well aware that God has not only feet of clay but probably has a brain of mud. Richard does have a very good point in that if people make an egregious error and if those errors are taken as being actual or potential policy then the granting by people of an authority to the speaker purely by he or she being a professor in an learned institution can be dangerous.

For me however this misses the crucial act : economics is ultimately a social science. In fact Im not sure that im even happy any more calling a science. It’s a branch of applied philosophy. There are very very few right answers in economics. There are many many more wrong answers, but in dealing with the real-time complex evolving politicized debate that is the modern Irish economic crisis I suggest we should ask the following question: are we better served by having people from academia speaking on our media or should we leave it to the “usual suspects” of bankers and politicians and lawyers and trade unionists? Taken to the extreme the arguments that we should only have economists speaking from the area of research publication would have deprived the Irish debate of many useful voices.

Prior to his series of opinion pieces in the Irish Times, to my knowledge, Morgan Kelly had not published a scholarly journal article on house price crashes. Karl Whelan has been extremely prominent in advancing a cool calculating rational debates in relation to central banking. Although he has worked in central banks over many years he doesn’t have a particular research stream in those areas. Seamus Coffey from University College Cork has emerged in the last couple of months as one of the new voices, taking a very data orientated approach to looking at what exactly is the problem and how might we get out of it. Yet his area of research expertise is according to the UCC website is health economics. Does this make his comments on mortgage debt less valuable? Stephen Kinsella in UL has published many books and articles on the Irish economy but his voice on european economic issues is one of sense and knowledge. Ronan Lyons is busy completing a doctorate in real estate economics in Oxford, has published as far as I can tell not much on same in peer reviewed journals but this doesn’t invalidate either his work on this or on many other areas of economics. And on the flip side, not having published doesn’t make one not an expert. Colm McCarthy has not many peer reviewed papers on the irish economy but would one consider him lacking in expertise? One could go on..This leaves aside the fact that for the most part irish academics are state (that is to say taxpayer) funded and as as such have perhaps a duty to use the academic freedom they have to challenge consensuses

I think we need more academics, and more and different economists on the media. Most of the issues that are on the media are, or should be, amenable to most persons with university level economics training. We have a small pool of people who appear time and again (including yrs truly even though in common with every other academic I turn down a multiple of offers to talk compared to the times I do accept). Why do we have this? We have exceptional labour economists, who have studied and yes published widely on the area. Why do we not hear their voices on the Irish employment and labour catastrophe? We have economists working at the frontiers of knowledge in relation to the effectiveness of education policy-their views would be tremendously interesting to the average person in relation to university fees, school policies, and educational/economic alignment. We have economists studying global business supply chains, but they are never evident when we have discussion on FDI. Again, one could go on.

There is a pool of talent, even if we take the restricted tol perspective, on almost every area of economic and business endeavor under the sun, in irish universities and they are not being heard. I might go further and note that for me one of the most disappointing elements of how the Irish media has dealt with this crisis has been the lack of a breath of vision in relation to drawing upon academia and other areas where alternative thinking might be found. Where the voices on Irish media of the political scientists? Would not be interesting to see the views of sociologists more regularly expressed? Philosophers have published articles and books about the Irish crisis but rarely if ever appear on national news or on the pages of newspapers bringing their prospective. It is 100% certain that people working in the schools of religion around the country have interesting theological or ethical perspective yet they are also muted. Where are the voices in the media of academic psychologists and how the economic and financial crisis might impact? There is a narrow pool, and it therefore must be in danger of growing stagnant. Much of this is because journalists work under terrible time pressure. Over the last number of years I have grown to have an enormous respect for the skills of journalists. I most often violently disagree with what they say but in general journalists work under pressure from quick deadlines to produce copy that is at the very least readable and broadly correct. Therefore when they ring somebody or when they need to check something they will ring someone whom they know will give a rapid, reasonably coherent, and preferably ‘down to earth’ perspective. Having found someone they will then use them again and again, or at least try. Journalists need to take a little time and ask their contacts ; whom else should we be talking to. They need to contact the university and institutes press and communication offices and ask the same question, or go to the heads of schools and faculties.

But academics also need to reach out. We all have stories to tell, and sometimes these need to be pushed. We cannot fall trap into waiting in the upper reaches of the ivory tower. The people who fund said edifice have a need and a desire for analytical input and are not stupid. Push your perspective, take some media courses, reach out and speak. Its not demeaning, its not degrading, its just communicating.

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