On civility in economic debates

10/12/2013 04:05:00 PM
Krugman (left) with Noah Smith
I see that John Cochrane has a couple posts discussing Niall Ferguson's recent rants against Paul Krugman, in which Cochrane essentially takes Ferguson's side. Ferguson and Cochrane both repeat a line I've seen from many conservative economists about Krugman and his "claque:" Krugman is being disrespectful and uncivil in the way he calls out other economists he disagrees with.

Having worked on academic research in both the medical sciences and in economics, one thing I've noticed is that economists tend to be much more aggressive in debating the issues. I've been at many economics seminars where an audience member interjects to say that something the presenter just said is "ludicrous"--an accusation that in medicine would be taken as a personal insult rather than the academic critique it was meant to be. In my field of health economics, I've learned to talk differently to medical researchers as opposed to economists: in medicine, no one is ever wrong, and we are all on the same side of every issue, not so much critiquing eachother's work as offering polite suggestions. Economics seminars, by contrast, often boil down to a researcher defending his work while everyone else tears it apart. This difference, of course, spills over onto the blogosphere for all the world to see.

Personally, I'm a much bigger fan of the economics approach. Bad science should not be respected; it should be debunked. And that's what Paul Krugman does on his blog all the time. But, attacking bad science does not necessarily mean attacking the people who produced it. Good scientists often produce bad science by, for example, making a terrible excel error. On this blog, I've often criticized work by many famous scholars and commentators that I nevertheless respect including John Taylor, Greg Mankiw, Matt Yglesias, and yes, even Paul Krugman.

I think that the criticism of Krugman's incivility arises largely when others fail to make this distinction. It seems pretty straightforward to me that a scholar should critique ideas he thinks are wrong. But, Ferguson makes that sound as though it's pure fascism:
"For too long, Paul Krugman has exploited his authority as an award-winning economist and his power as a New York Times columnist to heap opprobrium on anyone who ventures to disagree with him."
Notice the subtle framing of this argument: in reality, Krugman has merely voiced his disagreement with Ferguson; the way Ferguson tells the story, he is being attacked for bravely daring to disagree with  Il Duce. For the record Krugman has never, in anything I have read, engaged in ad hominem attacks on individuals, though he does lambaste those ideas with which he disagrees. Because of his writing style, I think this sometimes gets misinterpreted. In his post "Roots of Evil" for example, I really don't think Krugman meant to call Greg Mankiw evil--the post was criticizing some of Mankiw's ideas on the so-called "unit-root hypothesis," and I think the title was meant as nothing more than a bad pun.

On the other hand, I detect a bit of projection among Krugman's critics. Ferguson says:
"Krugman and his acolytes evidently relish the viciousness of their attacks, priding themselves on the crassness of their language."
Cochrane echoes a similar sentiment. What I find weird about this is that they make this claim in the same breath as tossing out some of their own crass language. Anyone who agrees with Krugman's political and academic views is, according to Ferguson, part of his "claque of like-minded bloggers" who "are to Krugman what Egyptian plovers are to crocodiles."  That does not strike me as a particularly nice thing to say about someone. Cochrane offers his own colorful metaphor, calling those who agree with Krugman a "devoted choir of lemmings." Again, that is pretty clearly an insult.

I suppose that, as a blogger who broadly agrees with Krugman, I am one of Cochrane's singing lemmings and Ferguson's flying hecklers, but I'm not particularly offended at these comparisons. In fact, I rather appreciate the rhetorical flourish to make the debate more interesting. I just think this line of criticism is a little too meta. Let's debate eachother's ideas--debating the debate is a well known derailing tactic meant to shut down the discussion when your side has run out of good arguments to put forward.