Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How I feel about economics seminars

Attending an economics seminar can be a surreal experience for the uninitiated. In one word, economics seminars are intense. Because my first academic love is economics, I have "grown up" thinking that
  • Arguing with the presenter about his introduction is appropriate seminar decorum.
  • If the presenter is not interrupted in the first five minutes with a question, no one is interested.
  • You present your work at a seminar to have people tear it to shreds so you can see what level of criticism your ideas can withstand.
On top of these basic economics seminar rules, I discovered that there's another seminar rule at University of Chicago: No clapping. Clapping at the end of the presentation is the second worst thing you can do. What's worse? Clapping at the beginning.

As strange as this sounds, I like this set of rules. I believe that serious work takes place at economics seminars. And, the point of presenting a seminar is to get feedback from smart people. After all, when you frame the task of the presenter as eliciting feedback from a very smart group of audience members, why should the audience members clap? They're the ones working.

On the other hand, I am aware that this is not how seminars work everywhere or in every department. I attended seminars when I was pursuing a master's in statistics. Those seminars were so different that I felt like I woke up in a foreign land at my first statistics seminar.

At statistics seminars (at least the ones I attended), there is time reserved at the end of the seminar for questions. Presenters are very rarely interrupted, and if they are, everyone recognizes that the presenter is the smartest person in the room on the topic. And, as nearly as I can tell, the main purpose for presenting a seminar in statistics is to disseminate ideas. Subjecting one's ideas to sharp criticism is secondary (if it is important at all).

Coming from a different background, you may think that economists are crude for perpetuating such a hostile incentive environment. You may think that those economists who present are insane for subjecting themselves to such harsh criticism. But I believe it works, at least for economics, and more strongly, I think there are very good reasons for the differences in seminar styles across disciplines.

Although it is quantitative, economics is not straightforward. At the frontier, economics involves balancing the competing demands of simplicity and realism (even if your paper has theorems and proofs). A completely realistic characterization of the world is going to be intractable (and therefore, it's subject to criticism). An overly simplified analysis will leave out important aspects of the problem (and therefore, it's subject to criticism).

Viewed in this light, the trick with economics is to strike the right balance: Your paper has to be interesting and right, and even if it is, it's subject to criticism.

On this dimension, statistics is different. As a presenter, you have theorems and lemmas (with proofs). Your papers are a system of logic unto themselves. They're correct by the time you present, but you're using the seminar to gauge interest. If you get a big audience who is still awake at the end of your presentation, you're on the right track.

But that's not the right way to go with economics because good economics is not about theorems and proofs; it is about understanding human behavior in a rigorous framework. Economic research is fueled by candid criticism, and seminars are an outstanding way to produce good economic research.


  1. Hi Tony

    Interesting topic as I have recently attended two such seminars and begun learning the world of graduate school economics. My personal experience has been the opposite. The comments and questions to the presenters was cordial and didn't appear particularly challenging. We did applaud at the end. As to economics being about understanding human behavior it seems that is the exception rather than the norm. I agree economics is about studying human behavior, but most everything I've read and classes I've attended seems to be about simplifying reality so it can fit into some math formula. The math proofs seem to prove the math is right, but not that it is the right math.

    I'm just meeting people in a local economics department and really don't know anyone well enough to discuss much with yet. We've traded posts here before and I appreciate your posts and your discussions when you have time.

    I hope your next presentation goes well. Presenter or attendee.


  2. Fletch,

    That's interesting that your experience has been cordial. For reasons I outlined above, I think that's both good and bad.

    I don't mean to say that the economics seminars I attend are shouting matches. They aren't. To the contrary, the audience members are usually polite.

    But in my experience, it's standard procedure to give the presenter a hard set of questions. Being critical is about the nicest thing they can do. It's better to learn of a flaw from a close colleague who works down the hall than from a referee who rejects your paper on account of the flaw.

  3. Tony

    Good point on rather hearing of problems from a colleague down the hall. My experience was with invited presenters from other universities. A little different I suspect, but still they were presenting papers that were not ready to publish and perhaps the professors could have been more challenging and that would have been helpful.

    Frankly I had questions that could perhaps been a challenge. My questions would have been more about the subject matter, but it seems that most of the questions were about the "robustness" or the techniques of the math.

    On another note I wish there were more economics related presentations or organizations around here (Colorado) where I could learn more. If you know of any let me know.



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