4 min read

Thoughts from an Economics Conference

I am sitting at the John Wayne Airport (did he build it?) reflecting on the conference I just attended “The Economics of Religion”, held at Chapman University. It was my first economics conference and I thoroughly enjoyed it, perhaps less so because of the material presented (much of it, particularly the modeling components, were way over my head), but just because of all the great people I met and the collegial atmosphere that prevailed. It was also an invaluable experience in that it exposed me to how another discipline approaches much of the same research I am interested in, but from a completely different perspective. I’ve been thinking of a few areas in particular that economists differ from political scientists, based purely on my observations from this conference. It’s probably irresponsible to make inferences of an entire discipline from one conference, particularly a conference that self-consciously tries to present themselves as being more inclusive to other disciplines, but what the heck, I’ve been making conclusions from scanty evidence my whole life. I’m not going to stop now, hence my observations below.

Modeling. There seems to be a much greater focus on modeling in economics as compared to political science. Interestingly, they tend to call formal modeling ‘theory’ as compared to ‘empirics’, whereas ‘theory’ in political science is usually just explaining the why behind some relationship that exists.

Causality Every presenter was very self-conscious and deliberate in declaring whether their work was causal or merely correlational. To show causality, however, they relied almost exclusively on instrumental variables. What I kept thinking was: why don’t you just try experiments? That’ll show causality in a much conceptually simpler and more convincing way. Or even natural experiments and regression discontunities? Those are more persuasive to me than statistical tests on observational data.

Creativity. Although most presenters relied on purely observational data, they used them in incredibly creative ways. In political science we tend to rely (to an excessive degree) on survey data, with all the pitfalls those come with. Even most of our experiments are measured using self-rated measures on surveys. Economists at this conference were using all sorts of inventive measures as proxies for phenomena in the world. These included disparate surnames as a proxy for socio-economic diversity, ethnic fusion foods as a proxy for innovation, and many more.

Validation. Perhaps because of the more ‘out there’ proxies that were used, I noticed a distinct focus on validation. Most presenters had a slide or two indicating why their measures were valid, mostly by showing predictive validity.

Alternative explanations. Along the same lines, I think there was more of a focus on discounting alternative explanations than I see in political science. It was the rare presentation that did not have several slides showing why their results were robust, or why the alternative explanations were wrong. This was wise considering that nearly all the questions from the audience were proposals of alternative explanations; “I wonder if your results are just caused by…[insert theory constructed on the spot].” There were almost no questions about the substantive or policy implications of their findings.

Behaviour, not Psychology. I suppose this is natural given that economics is all about rational choice theory, but there was no discussion of psychology. It was all about the behaviour of human beings, but why they behave the way they do is left unexplained except for the fact that they are trying to maximize their own utility. It made me realize how influential psychology has been as a discipline on political science; most of my work is on human behaviour, but using theories borrowed from social psychology. Take social identity theory for example; there was a talk on national identities, but the economist mentioned only that people seek to adopt national identities when they are prestigious because they increase their own payoff. But why? You need a theory about why human beings desire to affiliate themselves with collective groups; they feel better about themselves psychologically as a result of group membership, or they feel a sense of belonging, or they can better locate themselves in the social world. I would say there is more of a focus of trying to get inside a person’s head in political science when assessing behaviour, whereas economics cares more about the behaviour itself.

Economics Creep. Perhaps that difference in approach makes this next point less concerning, but I was shocked by how wide a net economists cast. Here I was naively thinking they mostly just studied the economy; far from it. They seem to be ‘creeping’ to all other areas of the social sciences. They’re doing history, religion, politics, and anthropology. To be honest I don’t really like this; let the historians do history, let the political scientists do politics. I suppose I feel a bit defensive about our turf. As I say, however, economists are approaching these topics from a completely different perspective, and thus I think there is ultimately room for their analysis as well as the perspectives brought by other social scientists.