What is a “Prominent” Economist?

by Mario Rizzo

In a recent article in Time magazine Michael Kinsley implies that no “prominent” economist has come out against economic stimulus as a (partial?) solution to the current mess. My interest here is not whether this true but in what constitutes “prominent.” I know many economists who do not agree with the dominant policy thinking on stimulus. But I guess they are not “prominent.” Now, coincidentally Greg Mankiw has posted a partly humorous formula that determines the value or impact of an economist. (I also saw this at The Austrian Economists.) Let’s call this the prominence formula. The prominence of an economist is positively related to the number of citations per original article he has written. Articles that are not original will decrease one’s prominence as well as citations that criticize one’s work. There are also other variables involved.


So the prominence of an economist depends on judgments about the originality of his work and the degree to which other economists think it is relevant to their own work. In the former case judgments about originality presumably also depend on the opinions of other economists. 


Now why would an economist bother to cite another economist? Presumably because he believes that the average opinion of the economists is that the latter’s work is important. Why might they believe it is important? Presumably because they believe it is both on-point and original (no good citing a derivative work). Or at least this is what the first economist believes is the average opinion of other economists.


If we believe in the fundamental rationality of the community of economists this is unproblematic. But if economists are subject to herding behavior, informational cascades or behavioral biases things might get interesting. Any thoughts?

7 thoughts on “What is a “Prominent” Economist?

  1. Mario:

    I think another part of this is what the profession as a whole and the media consider to be “legitimate” theoretical framwworks from which to think about policy questions.

    Thus, I would imagine if a reporter has contacted “prominent economist, Dr. X” (he is a professor at one of the Ivy league insitutions of higher learning; he served in a previous federal administration, he has had op-ed peices on related policy issues appear on the editorial page;of “The New York Times” or the “Washington Post”), when the reporter has finished his interview, he asks “Dr. X” who else might be contacted to comment on this policy issue.

    “Dr. X” will likely suggest other “prominent economists” who share similar views, or if asked to suggest economists with other views, it will most likely be those “Dr. X” knows or has met at professional meetings, and while holding different views this other economist was “mainstream” enough to be on a panel with “Dr. X” at an AEA meeting.

    In other words, those outside of this “corridor of legitimacy” will rarely (or certainly less frequently) be approached for comment and policy recommendations.

    In addition, “prominent” is in the “eyes of the beholder” in another way: What is the politicial and ideological bias of the organization or media institution asking for comments from “prominent” economists?

    Larry White, for example, recently did a very good “Briefing Paper” for the Cato Institute on how the economy got into this mess. “Der Spiegel” (the German weekly magazine) asked Paul Samuelson and Robert Lucus, among others, to comment on the crisis. (It is true that “Der Spiegel” only asked a number of Nobel Prize-winning economists to reply, but NOT among them was either Gary Becker or James Buchanan.)

    These all come into the mix in implicitly defining who is a “prominent economist” for purposes of public policy debate.

    Richard Ebeling

  2. I think there’s a lot of truth in this, though I don’t think that standard measurements of “prominence” are completely useless.

    I guess it depends on how efficient you think academic publishing markets are. Personally it seems like there are enough bright people out there looking for publishable material that, if these biases really did exist to the point that they would be detrimental towards public policy, people would have written enough material on it to shift the debate.

  3. 1. I like the sheep theory.
    2. Why would a Keynesian cite an Austrian?
    3. Why would an Austrian cite a Keynesian?
    4. Citations and what passes for originality has little to do with validity.
    5. Mass behavior is nothing new.

  4. I think this is relevant to what Mario is talking about… I remember reading that some hot-shot math guy came up with some complicated “proof” in mathematical logic (I don’t remember the exact subject), and, according to the book I was reading, the only person who could judge it was Kurt Godel. So the guy had to slide his work under Godel’s door, and then the next day Godel invited the guy to tea because it was correct.

    There was another anecdote I read, about the guy who finally proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. In his first attempt, he was actually wrong. The editor of the journal had to split the proof up into component parts, and sent each part to a relevant referee. The author and one of the refs went back and forth, and realized that there was a (fatal) mistake in that component of the proof.

    Anyway, it just struck me that even something as “objective” as math is, in practice, decided by a few gatekeepers. So who is “in charge”? Well, the editors of the math journals. But how do we know they’re the right humans to vest with such power? Well, because they’re the top in their profession. How did they get there? Well, they get published in the best journals…Etc.

    Austrians are familiar with this phenomenon in economics, but it’s interesting that it occurs in something like mathematics too. You want to say that there’s a difference, that a wrong result in math is demonstrably wrong, whereas people still like Keynesianism, but I think for a lot of the more complicated mathematics, the difference isn’t so stark.

  5. I think Bob Murphy is right about gatekeeping in math, but I also think (as he seems to) that math is probably more open than economics. Marjorie Rice, for example, found several new tessellations of the plane in the 1970s even though her only formal training in mathematics came in high school. Computer scientist Richard James III is another amateur who discovered new tessellations in the same period. See Schattschneider, Doris. 1978. “Tiling the Plane with Congruent Pentagons,” Mathematics Magazine, 51(1): 29-44. (I’ve cribbed the tessaltion stuff from my “Epistemic Systems” paper, BTW.) Srinivasa Ramanujan is another famous example.

    Economic reasoning is more like a “trust good.” It is generally harder to judge the attributes of a given bit of economic writing than a given proposed proof in math. That creates greater scope for bubbles, fads, fashions, and Keynesian beauty contests. If we move to some of the “softer” disciplines such as lit. crit., the problem worsens.

  6. In the science studies literature they’ve identified a lot of “log rolling” among scientists — scientists cite scientists who cite them, they cite scientists who share research and papers with them, and scientists cite scientists who are working to advance the fate of their own special theoretical or empirical rival within the discipline.

    It’s clear this goes on also in a discipline much more similar to economics than are the genuine hard sciences — philosophy.

  7. Perhaps more importantly, you find scientists — and philosophers — not citing people they don’t like, or who’s research is competitive with their own.

    All natural, human stuff.

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