Saturday, July 06, 2013

"Listen to the Gentiles"

I really enjoyed Paul Krugman's essay on "How I Work," especially his Rules for Research, which are:
1. Listen to the Gentiles
2. Question the question
3. Dare to be silly
4. Simplify, simplify
While the essay is really addressed to other economists, and includes a lot of language I just have to bleep over because it's from another [i.e., economist] world, he tells a story that seems useful for other worlds. A couple of outtakes:

"What I mean by [Listen to the Gentiles] is 'Pay attention to what intelligent people are saying, even if they do not have your customs or speak your analytical language.'”

and, from his explanation of "Dare to be silly":
If you want to publish a paper in economic theory, there is a safe approach: make a conceptually minor but mathematically difficult extension to some familiar model. Because the basic assumptions of the model are already familiar, people will not regard them as strange; because you have done something technically difficult, you will be respected for your demonstration of firepower. Unfortunately, you will not have added much to human knowledge.
What I found myself doing in the new trade theory was pretty much the opposite. I found myself using assumptions that were unfamiliar, and doing very simple things with them. Doing this requires a lot of self-confidence, because initially people (especially referees) are almost certain not simply to criticize your work but to ridicule it. After all, your assumptions will surely look peculiar: a continuum of goods all with identical production functions, entering symmetrically into utility? Countries of identical economic size, with mirror-image factor endowments? Why, people will ask, should they be interested in a model with such silly assumptions — especially when there are evidently much smarter young people who demonstrate their quality by solving hard problems?
What seems terribly hard for many economists to accept is that all our models involve silly assumptions.

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