Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Please don't help

Economists: teaching economic models for the math, not the economics.

Bill Craighead, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, wrote a post that Mark Thoma linked to (Prof. Craighead, get ready for a few thousand more pageviews) about the value of the undergrad intro to economics series. He (Craighead) was arguing the counterpoint to Noah Smith's attack on the intro series.

Noah writes:
We have a lot of macro theories, but none that really work well unless you pick your data set very carefully and squint very hard. ... And to make it worse, most of the macro theories that economists take halfway seriously are too hard for intro kids, so they end up learning silly stuff like Mundell-Fleming and Keynesian Cross that no one even halfway believes.


One of Craighead's defenses is a bit silly, though:
Second, working with economic models develops thinking and mathematical skills. Smith makes the point that the models we teach in an intro class have their flaws (as do the models we teach in PhD-level classes...), though I still think they're quite useful for thinking about a number of issues. But the act of manipulating a model and working out how assumptions are linked to conclusions helps students become sharper thinkers, and this stays with them long after they've forgotten the specifics of any particular model.

Call me old-fashioned, but mathematical skills are best taught in math class. And if the content of the models doesn't matter (and even economists don't believe them), why not teach some models without flaws that are actually pretty accurate that are believed by their practitioners ... like undergraduate physics. Have one of these people teach how to build and use models!

Why has economics taken upon itself to teach undergraduates how to use models and derive them from assumptions? No offense, but economics is the last field that comes to mind for this task. Especially since economists tend to sneak political bias in with those assumptions ...

It's like teaching people how to work on car engines using movie props. But students learn motor skills and how to think in 3-dimensions ...

5 comments:

  1. Love the illustration!

    O/T: I thought of you when I read this.

    Lol... and, no, that's not supposed to be an insult. I mean only in that you may have predicted ahead of time that the average profound level respondents awarded to the random statements would have been about 3 (on a scale from 1 to 5).

    Although I would LOVE to have mixed in a few of your actual profound statements (in a meaningful way if possible) to see how they'd do. For example, this is a classic:

    "Money is that which is conserved via a symmetry principle"

    My guess is that would garner an average score.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jason, maybe you should try tweeting

      "Money is that which is conserved via a symmetry principle"

      to Deepak Chopra... he might immediately see the wisdom in that and retweet it to his followers. ;^D

      I'd give it 85% that he'd feel that way about this statement:

      "Energy actually has a really beautiful and simple definition: that which is conserved due to the time-translation symmetry of the universe."

      ... and I'd give this one 50%:

      "...the space translation invariance of the universe is momentum"

      This opens a whole new category of pub quiz questions: phrases that sound like they might be Deepak Chopra tweets, but instead are actually true! Maybe the goal could be to tell the difference.

      Delete
    2. I'm not sure that would draw the kind of attention I'd like, but I think it would be the perfect insult to the history of economics in the sense that I'm not entirely sure whether economists or Deepak Chopra have a better understanding ...

      I probably should have said "when economics obeys the symmetry principle" because it doesn't always and therefore money can lose its value. There also appears to be a sort of conformal anomaly (the changing value of the IT index).

      Delete
    3. "I'm not sure that would draw the kind of attention I'd like"

      Lol, No? Well, there's always Alex Jones. ;^D
      ... (I wonder if Alex scans this to find new guests).

      Delete
    4. "I'm not entirely sure whether economists or Deepak Chopra have a better understanding ..." ... Yes, Deepak should look into this. At the very least he could start a hedge fund or something.

      "I probably should have said "when economics obeys the symmetry principle" because it doesn't always and therefore money can lose its value."

      Only lose? Or is gaining value also a symptom of this?

      Delete

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Also, try to avoid the use of dollar signs as they interfere with my setup of mathjax. I left it set up that way because I think this is funny for an economics blog. You can use € or £ instead.