Friday, May 5, 2017

"You're wrong because I define it differently"

There is a problem in the econoblogosphere, especially among heterodox approaches, where practitioners do not recognize that their approach is non-standard. I'm not trying to single out commenter Peiya, but this comment thread is a teachable moment, and I thought my response had more general application. 

Peiya started off saying:
Many economic theories are based on wrong interpretation on accounting identities and underlying data semantics.
and went on to talk about a term called "NonG". In a response to my question about the definitions of "NonG", Peiya responded:
Traditional definition of the "income accounting identity" (C+I+G = C + S + T or S-I = G-T) is widely-misused with implicit assumption NonG = 0.
So Peiya was using a different definition. My response is what I wanted to promote to a blog post (with one change to link to Paul Romer's blog post on Feynman integrity where I realize the direct quote uses the word "leaning" rather than "bending"):
For the purposes of this blog, we'll stick to the traditional definition unless there is e.g. a model of empirical data that warrants a change of definition. Changing definitions of accounting identities and saying "Many economic theories are based on wrong interpretation on accounting identities" is a bit disingenuous. 
Imagine if I said you were wrong because I define accounting identities as statistical equilibrium potentials? I could say that there is no entropic force associated with your "nonG" term, therefore you have a wrong interpretation of the accounting identities. 
But I don't say that. And you shouldn't say that about the "traditional" definition of accounting identities unless you have a really good reason backed up with some peer-reviewed research or at least open presentations of that research. 
You must always try to "[bend] over backwards" to consider the fact that you might be wrong. Or at least note when you are considering some definition that is non-standard that it is in fact non-standard. In my link above, I admit the approach is speculative. I say "At least if [the equation presented] is a valid way to build an economy." I recognize that it is a non-standard definition of the accounting identities. 
Saying people misunderstand a definition and then presenting a non-standard version of that definition is not maintaining the necessary integrity for intellectual discussion and progress.
I've encountered this many times where people basically assume their own approach is a kind of null hypothesis and other people are wrong because they didn't use their definitions of their model. Even economists with Phds sometimes do this. However "You're wrong because I define it differently" is not a valid argument, and it's even worse if you just say "You're wrong" leaving off the part about the definition because you assume everyone is using your definition for some reason. The only people who can assume other people are using their definition are mainstream economists because that's the only way science and academia operates. The mainstream consensus is the default, and not recognizing the mainstream consensus or mainstream definitions is failing to lean over backwards and show Feynman integrity

Commenter maiko followed up with something that is also a teachable moment:
maybe by nature he is just harsher on confused post keynesians and more compliant with asylum inmates.
By "he" maiko is referring to me, and by "asylum inmates", maiko is referring to mainstream economists (at least I think so).

And yes, that's exactly right. At least when it comes to definitions. There are thousands of books and thousands of education programs in the world teaching the mainstream approach to economics. Therefore mainstream economic definitions are the default. If you want to deviate from them, that's fine. However, because the mainstream definitions are the default you need to 1) say you are deviating from them, and 2) have a really good reason for doing so (preferably because it allows you to explain some empirical data).

Update:

In my Tweet of this post, I said that in order to have academic integrity, you must recognize the academic consensus. This has applications far beyond the econoblogosphere and basically sums up the problem with Charles Murray (failing to have academic integrity because he fails to recognize that the academic consensus is that his research is flawed) as well as Bret Stephens in the New York Times (in a twitter argument) who not only failed to recognize the scientific consensus but actually put false statements in his OpEd.

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