Thursday, March 3, 2011

Are economists more “conservative” because they dislike complexity?

There was a recent buzz about liberal bias in academia, covered (amongst other places) on the Freakonomics blog. I noted that there was an interesting correlation from the online dating service OK Cupid that revealed that people’s stated preference for complex vs. simple people was a very strong predictor for whether they were Conservative or Democrat, and suggested that people who prefer complexity (e.g. Democrats/liberals) would also be more comfortable with and interested in research.

It turns out there are people who have been actively pursuing this hypothesis. Over on the Discover blog, Chris Mooney reports that his posting on the topic triggered a response from a researcher (Everett Young), that stated (amongst other things)

If the psychological profile that produces curiosity and the desire to learn both makes one liberal and makes one more likely an academic, then its making one a scientist is barely in need of explanation.

and that

if you look at the political science literature over the last few decades, the burden of proof has shifted dramatically onto those who would deny a psychology-ideology link. Even without Jost, the evidence has grown into somewhat of a mountain. And Alford, et al.’s findings on genetics are only controversial insofar as people don’t like them. The evidence for a genetics-ideology link is also overpowering, even if we haven’t mapped out exactly how it happens.

This, however, raises another interesting question: Can we go backwards from the degree of “liberal overrepresentation” in a research discipline to an inference about the discipline’s complexity? Ongoing research by Daniel Klein shows that the liberal “overrepresentation” is weakest in economics (the table is copied from this paper):


Some might balk at my insinuation that economics is not “complex” (“Hey – that math is hard!”), but I would suggest that maybe a lot of economic theory might be complicated but not complex. I’m thinking particularly of those working in theory building on standard rational choice discussions, the sentiment embodied in Stigler and Becker’s “we-should-try-to-explain-everything-within-our-present-framework” De Gustibus article. The focus and goal here is to protect an already established way of thinking – and fitting, squeezing and forcing everything into this mould, and to use only a small handful of principles that flow from the rational choice model to explain everything.

Returning to Mooney, he relates Young’s point to something several discussants of his previous post had claimed:

many discussants cited a “traditionalism vs. openness/progress axis, in which liberals/scientists were depicted as being in search of the different and new (new findings, new experiences) where as conservatives were painted as resistant to change and attracted to routines, stability, and long existing structures.”

This is what I’m asking: Could it be that a lot of mainstream economists are “resistant to change” in the standard theoretical framework, and that they are attracted to the long existing structures and stability and routine of explaining things within such models? (At times, such research seems almost like an exercise in re-labeling variables to make a model “apply” to a new field) And does this imply that there should be a stronger liberal “slant” to the researchers working in, say, behavioral economics, where the number of explanatory principles is larger and the ambiguity bigger? Could this also be relevant to understanding the rational-choice-ad-absurdum of those schools of macroeconomics which seem the most consistently “hard-core” neoclassical and simultaneously the most sceptical of government intervention?

Speculation on top of speculation sprinkled with speculation. I’m not claiming any expertise here.

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