Four hints and a protestation July 7, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Paul Krugman gives some research advice. Four of his suggestions are helpful:

  1. Pay attention to what intelligent people are saying, even if they do not have your customs or speak your analytical language
  2. In general, if people in a field have bogged down on questions that seem very hard, it is a good idea to ask whether they are really working on the right questions.
  3. Virtue, as an economic theorist, does not consist in squeezing the last drop of blood out of assumptions that have come to seem natural because they have been used in a few hundred earlier papers. If a new set of assumptions seems to yield a valuable set of insights, then never mind if they seem strange.
  4. Always try to express your ideas in the simplest possible model.

This rang particularly true to me after a week in which I heard one of the technically best and intuitively worst talks in years. It would be unfair to reference the authors as they were only following what Krugman calls ‘the safe approach’, making a conceptually minor but mathematically difficult extension to some familiar model. What struck me though, apart from the desire to have the hour I had just wasted back, was how forgiving the audience was of this talk. They didn’t mark the presenter down at all for doing pure maths badly disguised as finance; indeed, they didn’t seem to mind at all that the paper’s assumptions were both palpably false and key to its policy conclusions. It was like going to a string theory talk: the beauty of the maths mattered more than the minimal connection between the object supposedly studied and the work presented. Now I support pure maths research. But I object to researchers disguising their work as applied maths when it isn’t. Krugman’s right – it does sometimes give insight to work on over-simplified models. But equally you can’t just assume that the conclusions of those models apply to the real world, and claiming that they necessarily do is just dishonest.

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