Posts Tagged ‘Economical Writing’

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

June 11, 2015

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is one of the best books about writing that I have read. (Not that I have read that many books about writing, but I have read some. Those that comes to mind are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style — didn’t leave much of an impression — Deidre McCloskey’s Economical Writing — did leave a huge impression — much of Barzun’s Simple & Direct and William’s Style — that I didn’t finish them says a lot — Stephen King’s On Writing and the edited volume Ernest Hemingway On Writing — King and Hemingway are not exclusively, but still largely, on writing. Further reading on rhetorics are McCloskey’s The Rhetorics of Economics and Cicero’s De Oratore. Books about reading — surprisingly readable — include Nick Hornby’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Urchin in the StormUrchin is a collection of essays where Gould pursues a special kind of book review, discussing books in an idea-wide scope; as instructive as anything. But I get carried away.)

Pinker’s The Sense of Style is great, perhaps only surpassed by McCloskey’s Economical Writing, in part because of McCloskey’s brevity. But Pinker has so much knowledge and so much to tell; he will be forgiven. What I get from McCloskey and that I miss in Pinker is an account of, and introduction to, the struggle of writing — writing obviously comes easily to Pinker and it seemingly never struck him that people struggle with it and that dealing with this struggle is, sometimes, half the job. Further, McCloskey tells us of the importance of reading well in order to write well; I think McCloskey has an important point that is missed by many, and I would appreciate Pinker’s views on it. Another minor thing pointed out by McCloskey is the value of prudence when it comes to visual effects like italics and bold face, and the disadvantage of distractions like footnotes (the latter pertains in particular to non-fictional writing, of course); I also miss these perspectives in Pinker.

But (again) Pinker is a very great book on writing. He starts out by providing samples of great writing (one example here) and then explaining, in details, what’s so particularly great about the specific examples. (Pinker uses a lot of examples — perhaps too much.) Next, he introduces the classic style, the style of writing he recommend, in particular for clear, non-fictional writing.

Classic style is an ideal. Not all prose should be classic, and not all writers can carry off the pretense. But knowing the hallmarks of classic style will make anyone a better writer, and it is the strongest cure I know for the disease that enfeebles academic, bureaucratic, corporate, legal, and official prose [p. 31*].

To just adopt the classic style is not all that easy, however, and this is one place where I wish Pinker would take a lesson from McCloskey. While Pinker teaches us what the classic style is and why it works, I missed something on how to achieve it. (Perhaps it’s all there, but I didn’t get it?)

Pinker moves on to discuss the curse of knowledge that is the difficulty involved in understanding what your reader knows and what your reader does not know, and our tendency to overestimate what is known. Pinker advice to “always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel” (p. 76).

Then Pinker turns to grammar, that old-fashioned subject that will bore you to death (or so must they think, those who think the grammar support provided by most word processing softwares nowadays is sufficient):

But grammar should not be thought of as an ordeal of jargon and drudgery […] It should be thought of instead as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head to another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful. By understanding how the various features of grammar are designed to make sharing possible, we can put them to use in writing more clearly, correctly, and gracefully [p. 79].

Grammar brings together three things: “the web of ideas in our head, the string of words that comes out of our mouth or fingers, and the tree of syntax that converts the first into the second” (p. 79). Pinker spends considerable time on the tree-like structure of sentences; probably both important and useful, but I honestly have forgotten most of it.

One important lesson I do remember, so important that Pinker returns to it on several occasions, is that the passive voice do have a place in good writing, and is even necessary at times:

[Earlier] we saw one of the benefits of the passive, namely that the agent of the event, expressed in the by-phrase, can go unmentioned. This is handy for mistake-makers who are trying to keep their names out of the spot-light and for narrators who want you to know that helicopters were used to put out some fires but don’t think you need to know that it was a guy named Bob who flew one of the helicopters. Now we see the other major benefit of the passive: it allows the doer to be mentioned later in the sentence than the done-to. […] The passive allows a writer to postpone the mention of a doer that is heavy, old news, or both [p. 132].

I find this lesson about the passive extraordinarily important. Ever since I read McCloskey, who dismisses the passive in forceful turns, I have avoided it like the plague. Now, I relax a little bit, knowing that submitting to a passive phrase does not have to mean that I am a useless writer.

Appreciating the treelike nature of a text can also help you understand one of the few devices available in nontechnical prose to visually mark the structure of discourse: the paragraph break. Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to build a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch of a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimited by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, take a breather, assimilate what he has read, and then find his place again on the page [p. 145].

Two cents from McCloskey here: Align, in Pinker’s words, the units of discourse with your paragraphs: One idea, one unit of thought, per paragraph, and the structure of your argument will become more clear.

On page 156 and onward, Pinker discusses the imperative Avoid Elegant Variation in the context of one of his many examples. He does, however, also point to situations where it is necessary to avoid repeating words, for example to avoid confusion. But the general advice is still to avoid variation for variation’s sake. Pinker is in full agreement with McCloskey here, who is rather stern if I remember correctly. Variation leads Pinker onto a discussion of coherence, of utmost important to good writers, of course. And coherence is related to the curse of knowledge:

Figuring out the right level of explicitness for coherence relations is a major reason that a writer needs to think hard about the state of knowledge of her readers and show a few of them a draft to see whether she got it right. It’s an aspect of the art of writing which depends on intuition, experience, and guesswork, but there is also an overarching guideline. Humans are cursed with attributing  too much of their own knowledge to others [curse of knowledge], which means that overall there is a greater danger of prose being confusing because it has too few connectives than pedantic because it has too many. When in doubt, connect [pp. 167-168].

I have a rumor (among me and myself, at least) for being pedantic when it comes to writing. Mostly, I find it a valuable trait.

Pinker end up concluding that coherence amounts to design:

There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version of one’s notes. A coherent text is a designed object: an ordered tree of sections within sections, crisscrossed by arcs that track topics, points, actors, and themes, and held together by connectors that tie one proposition to the next. Like other designed objects, it comes about not by accident but by drafting a blueprint, attending to details, and maintaining a sense of harmony and balance [p. 186].

I tend to agree.

The final chapter of Pinker’s Style is devoted to a list of hundred common issues in grammar, word choice, and punctuation, with Pinker’s advice on how to navigate them. Among them, the dreaded dangling modifiers, that versus which, a fun story of when fear of a split infinitive lead to a crisis of governance (in the US, of course), and ninety seven more valuable lessons that I am glad I now have available in my office.

I hope to have convinced you that dealing with matters of usage is not like playing chess, proving theorems, or solving textbook problems in physics, where the rules are clear and flouting them is an error. It is more like research, journalism, criticism, and other exercises of discernment. In considering questions of usage, a writer must critically evaluate claims of correctness, discount the dubious ones, and make choices which inevitably trade off conflicting values [p. 300].

I never intended to put Pinker and McCloskey up against each other, but it kind of turned out that way anyhow. (I remember more from McCloskey than I’m aware!) Which I prefer? I think someone who want to write better should read both, but start with McCloskey, for brevity if for nothing else. They complement each other. And I cannot choose. Pinker provide a much more comprehensive treatment, and is much more an expert. McCloskey is refreshing, in particular when she addresses peculiarities of economic writing, and should not be missed. For all her amateurism, her guide made me appreciate the value and necessity of good writing, and provided me with an understanding that let me navigate other treatises with ease and joy.

* Page numbers refer to the first edition, Allen Lane, 2014.



Quote of the Day

November 4, 2009

Buck up. Irrational cheerfulness is hard to teach but good to have for any work .
-Deirdre N. McCloskey, Economical Writing, Second Edition, 2000, p. 21

Writing Reveals the Self

October 23, 2009

On and off the last months, I’ve been reading Strunk & White’s classical The Elements of Style. Most of the book is concerned with rules for good and elusive writing and usage of English. In the final chapter, they discuss style:

In this final chapter, we approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? […] There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion [p. 66, fourth edition, paperback].

Strunk & White seems to imply that clear thinking is required for clear writing. McCloskey states that explicitly in her Economical Writing, if I remember correctly. It’s hard to argue for anything else, I guess. What concerns me is that I seldom think clearly. I take forever to straighten out an argument or an idea. Perhaps writing is not something I should pursue?

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable, as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito [pp. 66-67].

Writing reveals the Self!

Finally, some advice:

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style all mannerism, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge [p. 69].

Aris Spanos Reviews Ziliak & McCloskey

August 2, 2009

In the first issue of the new, free, and online journal Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Aris Spanos reviews  Ziliak & McCloskey’s The Cult of Statistical Significance (pp. 154-164; see my rambling review for other reviews and Ziliak’s homepage for more reviews, comments, and much more).

The review is interesting for several reasons. First of all, Spanos is an expert on econometrics and is highly qualified to understand and relate to Ziliak and McCloskey’s critique. Second, the review is highly critical of the book; Spanos does not agree with Ziliak & McCloskey on most central issues, it seems, and he doesn’t like their lack of alternatives to classical, significance testing nor their rhetorics. Finally, the review is particularly interesting because Ziliak & McCloskey has been given the opportunity to reply to Spanos critique.

First, Spanos blows off some steam about Ziliak & McCloskey’s rhetorics:

[T]hey attempt to make their case using a variety of well-known rhetorical strategies and devices, including themes like battles between good vs. evil, and conceit vs. humility, frequent repetition of words and phrases like ‘oomph’, ‘testimation’, ‘sizeless stare’ and ‘size matters’, picturesque language, metaphor and symbolism, flashback, allusion, parody, sarcasm, and irony. Their discourse in persuasion also includes some ‘novel’ devices like cannibalizing quotations by inserting their own ‘explanatory’ comments to accommodate their preferred interpretation, ‘shaming’ notable academics who ‘should have known better’, and recalling private conversations as well as public events where notable adversaries demonstrated the depth of their ignorance [p. 155].

I’m particularly sympathetic to the above critique; I find the rhetoric in the book disturbing and, at times, simply bad. In parts, the use of visual effects is way overdone, which is strange given McCloskey’s warnings about exactly that in her little gem Economical Writing. However, exactly because of McCloskey’s demonstrated wisdom on writing and rhetoric, I’m suspecting that the overuse of visual effects, the insisting repetition, and the defamation of R.A. Fisher is intentional; readers (and professors in particular) are supposed to jump in their chairs, being offended.

Spanos comments rather shortly on much of the book, but his review still gives a good idea of what The Cult is onto and how it goes about it. Spanos’s review naturally focuses on what he’s most interested in; ‘various philosophical/methodological issues pertaining to the problem’ and what to do about it (p. 155).

Spanos is annoyed by the ‘nontechnical’ flavor of the book; he’d like to see alternative methods demonstrated to fix the ‘problem.’ Obviously, Spanos has worked extensively on related issues; he refers to his own work the whole time (so, either he is the world leading expert on the stuff, or he has a wrong idea of himself). Spanos claims that an important reason for the ‘confusion in the minds of practitioners concerning the appropriate use and interpretation of frequentist methods’ was that the philosophical foundations of the early development of the methods ‘left a lot to be desired’ (pp. 157-158). I’m not convinced. Ziliak & McCloskey argue that a mechanical test cannot substitute scientific judgment. ‘Philosophical foundations’ cannot change that.

Spanos continues:

In the absence of any guidance from the statistics literature, practitioners in different applied fields invented their own favored ways to deal with these issues which often amounted to misusing and/or misinterpreting the original frequentist procedures […]. Such  misuses/misinterpretations include, not only the well-known ones relating to the p-value, but  also: (i) the observed confidence interval, (ii) the p-value curves, (iii) the effect sizes, (iv) the fallacy of the transposed conditional, (v) Rossi’s real type I error, (vi) Zellner’s random prior odds, and (vii) Leamer’s extreme bounds analysis [p. 158].

Spanos then claims that Ziliak & McCloskey too have misunderstood; they have misunderstood the methods they recommend to remedy the problem of significance testing. He goes on to shortly explain why the recommended methods won’t work. Unfortunately, some of his explanations are too short for me to understand. I’m convinced, however, that Spanos knows what he’s talking about and in particular that stuff like confidence intervals and p-value curves won’t help much; I was wondering myself how confidence intervals, based on standard errors, could help alleviate the misuse of significance testing (which is exactly to calculate standard errors and compare the distance between an estimate and a hypothesized value in terms of the standard error).

Spanos, too, misunderstands, however. As far as I can understand, on p. 160, where he writes

“A good and sensible rejection of the null is, among other things, a rejection with high power” (Ziliak and McCloskey 2008, 133). And “refutations of the null are easy to achieve if power is low or the sample is large enough” (p. 152).

No! No! You have it backwards. Rejection with high power is actually the main source of the problem of statistical vs. substantive significance, and ‘large enough sample sizes’ n go hand in hand with high power, not low.

Spanos misunderstands Ziliak & McCloskey when they write ‘if power is low or the sample is large enough’ (p. 152; my emphasis). They mean, as they write, or, not and, as Spanos seem to read.

Nonetheless, Spanos still claims that low power is desirable in a significance test. I presume he is correct; I was very confused about Ziliak & McCloskey’s discussion of power in statistical tests because my knowledge of it is limited and their explanations are not exactly text-book. Now, if I’m not wrong, Ziliak & McCloskey claimed that high power is necessary to avoid so-called Type II errors. Spanos doesn’t mention such errors when he claims they have misunderstood power; instead, he talks about Type I errors. Extremely unfortunate, Ziliak & McCloskey refrain from commenting on power in their reply to Spanos.

Spanos ends his review with a discussion of statistical adequacy, which, according to him is a more fundamental problem in applied statistics and which has been dealt with only recently and to a large degree by himself (p. 163). He continues:

Where does this leave the authors’ concern with the problem of statistical vs. substantive significance? Shouldn’t they have known that, even if one had a credible procedure to address the problem, one couldn’t make any progress on the basis of statistically misspecified models [p. 163]?

I don’t understand. Do more fundamental problems acquit researchers from misusing significance testing? I don’t think so.

I conclude that Ziliak & McCloskey’s are right in their critique of Fisher and his methods, but that their suggested methods aren’t exactly water tight either. Spanos is alien (hostile, even) to Bayesian methods, which he doesn’t even bother to discuss in detail; I may end up putting my faith there.

(For the record, my current understanding of the main difference between Fisherian and Bayesian methods is that Fisherian methods assume God [or whatever; Nature] put the truth out there [a parameter value, for example]; they assume the fixed, only truth exist and somehow treat observations as random. Bayesian methods, instead, treat the truth [the parameter value of interest] as random [or floating or whatever] and treat the observations as given. First, things change and stuff is not constant; the one and only truth don’t exist. Second, the observations are in fact the only given entity in a statistical problem, and I cannot help but find it funny to think of them as somehow random. Maybe I’m just not deep enough?)

Next, Ziliak & McCloskey’s reply (pp. 165 – 170). (Warning: A lot of cutting and pasting is about to hit you: The reply is so well-written that it best speaks for itself.) They start by repeating the gist of their book:

Over the past century the usual (and the conveniently mechanical) procedure devised by the great statistician, geneticist, and racial eugenicist R. A. Fisher has been shown to be scientifically silly again and again and again. Rarely has anyone actually defended NHST (null hypothesis significance testing). That is because it is logically indefensible. Statistical significance is neither necessary nor sufficient for substantive scientific significance. Everyone knows this, once they stop regressing for a minute and actually think [p. 165].

Obviously, they keep insisting on defaming Fisher; their rhetoric in the review, however, I find more balanced than that in the book.

Ziliak & McCloskey accuse Spanos of being angry and indignant. I find it peculiar: If anything else, what I read into Ziliak & McCloskey’s defamation of Fisher, it’s anger and indignation. I would also expect McCloskey to appreciate temperature in a debate. Furthermore, what do they expect when they do what they do to the icon Fisher in fact is? Again, I think Ziliak & McCloskey counted on stirring up feelings, and they use it for what it’s worth: they eloquently turn it against their attackers:

[T]he defenders [of significance testing] are always angry. Ignorant sneering, personal insult, and irrelevant indignation are judged acceptable when defending [significance testing]. We think the anger comes from a psychological tension. The defenders realize uneasily that it is strange to depend for scientific judgment on a sampling statistic without a persuasive context—failing to ask how big is big, which is the only scientific context relevant to a real scientific test. But they have been thoroughly indoctrinated in NHST, and belong to a professional club in which t > 2.0 or p < .05 or whatever is substituted for scientific judgment. The mechanical procedure of their profession is under attack. So they get angry. They have no reply. So they shout and bluster [pp. 165 – 166].

Next (p. 166) Ziliak & McCloskey sidesteps the main part of Spanos attack:

Spanos throws up a lot of technical smoke that has the effect of obscuring the plain fact that he agrees with us. (The mathematics in his piece is irrelevant to anything of importance. The reader may omit it.)

Omit it! They got some nerve. I still find it unfortunate that Ziliak & McCloskey avoid commenting on Spanos claims of errors and misunderstandings in The Cult. Anyway, they see differently on Spanos main criticism:

The main point of Spanos’s piece is that Ziliak and McCloskey do not offer guidance on how to address substantive scientific significance. Yet even if we had not, it would not be a fault. NHST is intellectually bankrupt, as Spanos agrees it is, and it should be abandoned. If you earn your living robbing banks, you should stop, right now, at once. You should not complain, “But how am I now to earn my living?” Go get honest work. And the honest work in the present case is the exercise of scientific judgment, quantified by relevant magnitudes that the best scientists find persuasive [p. 167].

Good point. And they find it appropriate to pound their main message in The Cult some more:

There is no discipline-independent criterion for importance, calculable from the numbers alone. Read that again. There is no discipline-independent criterion for importance, calculable from the numbers alone. Scientific judgment is scientific judgment, a human matter of the community of scientists. As vital as the statistical calculations are as an input into the judgment, the judgment cannot be made entirely by the statistical machinery [p. 168].

Cannot disagree to that. What is an expert if he cannot offer judgement? An expert is not merely an operator of a mathematical machinery; he knows best and should feel obliged to offer his judgment, he shouldn’t hide behind numbers.

Ziliak & McCloskey ends with a challenge (and their ‘prior’):

Here is our challenge. If you think, like Spanos, that you have a valid defense of NHST, offer it. Spanos, like Hoover/Siegler, and Anthony O’Brien (2004), have tried. They have failed. But at least they are serious about their intellectual commitments, and believe (given their Bayesian priors) that NHST is defensible. It is not [p. 169].

Hat-tip:  Homo Phileconomicus

Related post:

The Cult of Statistical Significance by Ziliak & McCloskey

July 28, 2009

The Cult of Statistical SignificanceLast year, Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey published The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives. I finished it a while ago now (during my trip to Alaska, in fact; a lot of time available on those planes), and I want to discuss it here.

Before checking out my amateur opinions, however, it may be wise to check out some the reviews that Ziliak kindly has gathered on his homepage. I, for example, found the one from Science (by Theodore Porter) interesting. Only read the review in Journal of Economic Literature (by Saul Hymans) if you don’t plan to read the book itself. You may settle with the following, closing paragraph:

Despite my firm belief that most applied econometricians would benefit from adopting the methodological position presented by Ziliak and McCloskey and that economics as science would be improved significantly thereby, I can’t close without something of a rebuke. As often happens when someone is pushing what the mainstream considers an extreme or fringe position, the arguments become narrowly and harshly focused. This comes through too often in Ziliak and McCloskey. In its particularly narrow perspective, their treatment of the professional accomplishments of a number of exceptionally gifted economists is simply unjustified. Included among such economists are Gary Becker, Trygve Haavelmo, Harold Hotelling, Lawrence Klein, and Paul Samuelson. It is especially unfortunate, for example, that Ziliak and McCloskey misrepresent the significance of Haavelmo’s pathbreaking article of 1944 and never even mention his major contribution of 1947, a piece which Ziliak and McCloskey should find quite simpatico [p. 503].

The ‘review’ in the Journal of Economic Methodology (by Tom Engsted) is a full-length article discussing a debate surrounding the Ziliak & McCloskey book.

So, I hope you’re fed up already: Here are my (largely unqualified) opinions on and comments to this book. As (almost) always; first things first: The Cult of Statistical Significance carries some important messages (despite it’s terrible title; maybe they were inspired by the dreadful Andrew Keen). The Cult tells us that statistical significance is not the same thing as substantive significance, that statistical significance is often misused and appears to be misunderstood by many a scientist (and particularly economists), and that only by attending to quantitative, scientific magnitude and judgement will sciences like medicine (yes, medicine), economics, and other statistically confused fields be able to move ‘into the age of science and humanity’ (p. 251; all page references are to the paperback edition). Alright, maybe the last one there may be discussed (and the quote is slightly out of context); notwithstanding, Ziliak and McCloskey certainly feels that way, wants their readers to feel that way, and bring a lot of good arguments to the table.

A quick, non-technical update on statistical significance is found here, by the way. From the first paragraph:

In normal English, “significant” means important, while in Statistics “significant” means probably true (not due to chance). A research finding may be true without being important. When statisticians say a result is “highly significant” they [should] mean it is very probably true.

Everyone who understands statistical significance understands that substantial significance is something else and the more important of the two. The disagreement would be whether statistical significance is misused, misunderstood, or both. Perhaps, then, Ziliak and McCloskey’s crown argument is their study of the practice with statistical significance in the American Economic Review during the 1980s. (To those unaware; a publication in the AER is among the most prestigious and important things an economist can achieve, particularly in terms of their career.) Their findings, discussed in chapter 6 (pp. 74-78) and published in the Journal of Economic Literature in 1996, is discouraging. The best economists (that is, those publishing in the AER in the 1980s) misuse statistical significance to a large degree.

Next, Ziliak and McCloskey do something odd. Faced with arguments from colleagues that best practice had improved since the 1980s, perhaps partly because of their 1996 article, they go ahead and do another study of the practice in the AER in the 1990s:

We are very willing to believe that since the 1980s our colleagues have stopped making an elementary error and especially that we have changed their minds. But being readers of typical economics articles since that first decace of personal computers [the 1980s] we seriously doubted that fishing for significance had much abated. […] And so in a second article, published in 2004, we [reapplied our study from 1996] to all the full-length empirical articles of the next decade of the AER, the 1990s [p. 79].

There’s a logical flaw here. If Ziliak and McCloskey caused the change with their 1996 article, it won’t show up in a study of the 1990s! And probably not of the first decade of the new millenium either; changes take a while, often a generation or so (just ask Thomas Kuhn, rephrased by Paul A. Samuelson in 1999: ‘Science advances funeral by funeral’). And indeed, Ziliak and McCloskey(or, McCloskey and Ziliak, as the reference will show) doesn’t find much of an improvement in the 1990s compared to the 1980s.

Of course, Ziliak and McCloskey have ideas on why scientific practice in the AER has not changed:

Significance unfortunately is a useful means toward personal ends in the advance of science – status and widely distributed publications, a big laboratory, a staff or research assistants, a reduction in teaching load, a better salary, the finer wines of Bordeaux. Precision, knowledge, and control. In a narrow and cynical sense statisitcal significance is the way to achieve these. Design experiment. Then calculate statistical significance. Publish articles showing “significant” results. Enjoy promotion.

But it is not science, and it will not last [p. 32].

They may be right. But, one cannot forget the position of the AER among economists. Because of it’s career generating potential, economists are likely to mimic it, both methodologically and rhetorically.

Still, Ziliak and McCloskey’s empirical evidence of the poor econometric practice in the AER is striking and convincing. I am now skeptic towards empirical economists. And not only economists: Ziliak and McCloskey summarizes evidence of bad practice in psychology, medicine, ecology and several other fields. One gets the impression that only the ‘hard’ sciences got it right (and I who used to think that medicine was a hard science).

In Ziliak and McCloskey’s view, one man is responsible for most of the statistical mess in economics and other fields: R. A. Fisher, whose Statistical Methods for Research Workers (1925), which went through no less than 14 editions, laid down the foundations for much of the later, statistical practice in many applied statistical fields. Ziliak and McCloskey attacks Fisher hard, in an almost distasteful way (they even accuse him of ‘outright, scientific fraud’ in an endnote somewhere, I’m sure, but I wasn’t able to find back to it), and large parts of the second half of the book they devote to attack Fisher in various ways and contrast him to (their hero, it appears) William Sealy Gosset, better know as ‘Student’ (look up Student-t). Maybe even more absurd is the blame put on the philosophical trends of the time:

One reason for the success of the Fisherian program against more logical alternatives […] is that the Fisherian program emerged just as neopositivismand then falsificationism emerged in the philosophy of science. It would have fallen flat in philosophically more subtle times, such as those of Mill’s System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843) or Imre Lakatos’s Proofs and Refutations (1976). No serious philosopher nowadays is a positivist, no seroius philosopher of science a simple falsificationist. But the philosophical atmosphere of 1922-62 was perfect for the fastening of Fisher’s grip on the [statistically confused] sciences [p. 149].

Toward the end, after the very interesting chapter 23 (pp. 238-244), Ziliak and McCloskey get almost out of hand. On pages 249-250, they propose a “Statement on the proprieties of Substantive Significance” which they want editors, administrators and scientists to sign. The language of their ‘statement’ is, however, to involved and won’t hold as a standalone statement. I don’t understand the purpose of the statement when it isn’t self-containted, and otherwise just repeats a message that has been pounded upon throughout the book. And they keep pounding it, increasing their volume:

The textbooks are wrong. The teaching is wrong. The seminar you just attended is wrong. The most prestigious journal in your scientific field is wrong [p. 250].

Got it.

I had high expectations for this book, particularly because McCloskey’s name was on the cover. I was sligthly disappointed, however. By close examination, I discovered that McCloskey’s name is put last and that they’ve ignored the alphabetical order of names: Ziliak is the main author. It is obvious in some places, Ziliak don’t have McCloskey’s Economical Writing under his skin (neither do I, of course, but I would expect McCloskey to). This is a minor issue, certainly, but I looked forward to some persuasive, well-written, and witful prose of the kind McCloskey promotes in her Economical Writing; most of the time, it didn’t happen.

UPDATE: I have a hundred things to say about this book, but I cannot say them all at once. My above review is bad, I know, and I apologize. I confused the important things I wanted to say with the unimportant ones. I may get back to the book in later posts, but for now, I suggest the reader rather reads my discussion of the debate between Spanos and Ziliak & McCloskey. It presumable gives a better idea of what’s important in the book and yields more enjoyable and interesting reading.

And, for the record, let me again point out that I agree with Ziliak & McCloskey on their main point in The Cult, as stated in their reply to Spanos:

Statistical significance is neither necessary nor sufficient for substantive scientific significance.

Mr Vertigo

April 1, 2009

Today, I finished ‘Mr Vertigo’; a novel by Paul Auster. I’m not going to discuss it at length (or at all), but the opening line is worth a whole post by itself:

I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water.

That’s a cracker. The opening line must be the hardest one. It’s like ligthening from a clear, blue sky. It must hook the reader, make him curious about what’s to follow. According to McCloskey’s ‘Economical Writing’, the opening statement should not be boring, but take the reader from his current standpoint to the issue at hand.

The rest of ‘Mr Vertigo’ is also great, by the way; go read it!

Economics Is Hard

March 19, 2009

In an old post on Freakonomics that discusses the Coase Theorem, Steven Levitt, the great economist, writes:

The basic idea of the Coase Theorem is that no matter who is assigned property rights, as long as transaction costs are not too high, the efficient outcome will be achieved.

That’s wrong, as far as I know. Well, at least, Deirdre McCloskey, who seem to know her stuff better than most, writes in her little gem Economical Writing:

“[T]he Coase Theorem” [that is] “the proposition that property rigths matter to allocation in the case of high transaction costs” (which, incidentally, is the correct statement of the theorem, widely misunderstood in economics) [p. 60, 2nd edition].

The quote is taken out of context, which is a discussion of the use of Capitalization, but that’s beside the point. Now, I looked the theorem up in the book I learned it from back in the days (‘Environmental Economics – In Theory and Practice’ by Hanley, Shogren, and White, 1997), and it was wrongly stated there as well:

The so-called Coase theorem posits that disputing parties will work out a private agreement that is Pareto efficient [that is, no-one can be made better off without making someone else worse off], regardless of the party to whom unilateral property rights to the non-market asset are assigned initially [p. 25].

Both Levitt and my text book are right, of course; property rights do not matter to efficiency when transaction costs are ignored. They are always present, however, and that’s were Coase put his emphasis, I think; when transaction costs are substantial, property rights matter. I should look up Coase’s original formulation and find out for myself, I know. I’m lazy, though, maybe some other time. I did google it, however, and every single explanation I found among the top hits got it the wrong way.

Economics is hard. Or confusing, maybe.