The Problem with Too Much Cleverness

According to Phil Agre’s “How to be a leader in your field,” the first step to disciplinary domination is to “Pick an issue.” This, it turns out, is so very hard that he devotes the majority of his paper to this important decision. One of many issue-spotting techniques is this:

(m) Ask yourself, what is the big fashion in my profession right now, or in my specific area? Fashions usually edit reality, leaving out important issues that will come roaring back sooner or later. Don’t be a reactionary by trying to roll back the current fashion to something that came before. Instead, identify those elements of the current fashion that are valuable, and articulate an agenda that remixes those elements with the elements that are being left out.

This is good advice: Agre is not the too-clever problem described in the title. In my field, political philosophy, the answer is undoubtedly deliberation, and so I have structured a good deal of my recent work on the things deliberators ‘edit out.’ But let’s take another field, economics. The trend there appears to be Steven Levitt’s style of wacky slice-of-life research, popularized in Freakonomics, that satisfies the infotainment market by giving nice, juicy nuggets of economic data.

Noam Scheiber critiques that trend in this New Republic piece. His argument is that Levitt’s economics-light style distracts his discipline from the big questions of poverty and wealth, famine and obesity, disease and sanitation that ought to occupy them, in search of ‘clean identification,’ tricky little hiccups in the world that give us clear indications of causality, as when Levitt proved that

“a slight increase in the chance of arrest dramatically deterred auto theft. Levitt discerned this by studying cities that had approved the use of Lojack, a transmitter that leads police to stolen cars.”

Much of the rest of the work done in this style tends to be useless and unsurprising, like his studies of sumo wrestling corruption, or else so controversial as to be muddled by the ensuing debate, like his claim that the legalization of abortion led to lower crime rates. So if this is the trend, which is already experiencing a backlash, what’s being edited out? Well, Scheiber points to two things: slow, arduous quantitative empirical studies, and formal economic theorizing. Methodologically, he’s right, but what he’s ignoring is that Levitt’s methods are appealing to a public still ignorant of the ‘duh’ moments he identifies in Freakonomics. It seems to me that Levitt’s work is also good for taking ordinary experiences and making them resonate with the economic theories.

So, as a humble philosopher, I’d suggest that the next big thing is this: making the big questions of poverty, famine, and disease resonate with popular audiences. These things do affect us, so it shouldn’t be so hard. Maybe young economists will have to reject the quest for ‘clean identification’ in the search for quotidian but profound research, but I’m not sure that’s completely reprehensible. The scholars who can keep asking the big questions in a mundane key, people who emulate Amartya Sen instead of Levitt, will be able to ride out both this trend and its aftermath.

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