Thursday, December 2, 2010

Economics Textbooks and Climate Change

Yoram Bauman issued a report card of 16 leading introductory economics textbooks where he grades each book's treatment of climate change. Here is his stated motive for issuing the report:
At the end, you’ll also find my invitation to help deliver an appropriate prize to the winner of the 2010 Ruffin and Gregory Award for the Worst Treatment of Climate Change in an Economics Textbook. The traditional prize—as established with Ruffin and Gregory’s book, which is now selling for $0.55 on Amazon—is for the book in question to be hounded out of print.
When I first read the report, I asked myself if this is how a general introductory textbook in microeconomics should be measured. After mulling this over, I am still not sure how much weight I should give his signal of quality.

On one hand, climate change is one example among many that a general microeconomics textbook should discuss. Judging the quality of a textbook by its treatment of one topic is imprecise, which is a liability, especially if you use the judgment to "hound [the book] out of print." Ideally, a textbook consumer (read "instructor") should take other factors into account. How strong is the book in relation to the instructor's course objectives? Will students read it? If there are errors/ weaknesses, can the instructor minimize these by offering supplemental material?

On the other hand, bias in the treatment of climate change may reflect an overall weakness on other important topics. Every textbook has its weaknesses, but some have more important weaknesses. Because it is costly to determine if a textbook is worth using, an informative signal (narrow as it may be) can be useful. How useful is this signal? Do textbooks that are weak on climate change have more significant weaknesses in other areas? How strong is this relationship?

I am uncertain about what to do with Bauman's review. There's information in what he writes, and I'll certainly take something away from it, but I don't come away from the report confident enough to help hound a book out of print.

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