Clear and Precise Scientific Communication
Because it is New Year’s Eve, I indulged in some Twitter. One exchange might be worth unscrambling from some others. Dani Rodrik triggered it with a post that offered this advice to non-economists:
Do not let math scare you; economists use math not because they are smart, but because they are not smart enough.
Lukas Freund responded on Twitter:
Agree on many points, which in classic Rodrik-fashion are pithy but insightful. But e.g. “economists use math not because they are smart, but because they are not smart enough” sounds like a misleading maths-bashing generalisation. — Lukas Freund (@LukasFreund) December 31, 2017
I read it as praising math, not maths-bashing. He’s saying we need the help that math can give us? — Nick Rowe (@MacRoweNick) December 31, 2017
Agree with that as a conclusion – math aids economists (and others) in clarifying and expressing their thoughts succinctly & prevents unwarranted jumps in reasoning – but it doesn’t strike me as the most natural reading. Glad you flagged the alternative reading! — Lukas Freund (@LukasFreund) December 31, 2017
Soren Kerndrup and Lukas referred to my work. (Note that Soren meant the “Warsh” book.)
Romer’s ( @paulmromer ) work on growth theory one of the best examples on how math is important “in clarifying and expressing thoughts succinctly & prevents unwarranted jumps in reasoning ” see david harsh book @rodrikdani https://t.co/jp0kXXzLlc — Soeren Kerndrup (@kerndrup) December 31, 2017
…which is why his ‘mathiness’ critique has weight, of course. I don’t think anyone doubts that math can be useful — problem is disconnect of natural language and policy conclusions from math, and that critical treatment of math not sufficiently taught in grad school. — Lukas Freund (@LukasFreund) December 31, 2017
I jointed in with 4 tweets (combined here).
1/ The test is whether math adds to or detracts from clarity and precision. A writer can use either the words of everyday language or the symbols from math to make assertions that are clear and precise; or opaque and vague.
2/ The deep problem is intent, not ability or skill.
3/ Writers who want to make predictions use words and math to be clear and precise. Writers who want to make excuses use words and math to be opaque and vague.
4/ Compared to words, math and code tend to be both more precise and more opaque. See, e.g. the international obfuscated C contest.
— Paul Romer (@paulmromer)
Lukas responded with two tweets, that judging from likes and retweets, were the most widely appreciated of the entire exchange.
Put differently, I suppose, we need a version of Orwell’s “6 Rules for Writing” for Economics, perhaps including the following:
- Never use mathematical symbols where it does not add to clarity and precision relative to natural language.
- Never use math unless you intend to use it for sake of clarity and precision.
- Never provide policy recommendations based on a mathematical model unless you understand what assumptions underpin that recommendation.
— Lukas Freund (@LukasFreund)
By this point we were out of sync. In parallel, Lukas took issue with my use of “intent”, and I accepted his point.
Intent plus, I would say, career concerns and the pressure to publish papers of a particular character, optimally with strong policy conclusions. This might, of course, be purely due to small-n sample of economists I’ve interacted with, but those I’ve met generally do have ‘good intentions’ (to produce research developing policies that promote public welfare) – suggests factors other than intentions are at work. — Lukas Freund (@LukasFreund)
Perhaps I should say “problem of attention” rather than “problem of intention.” But either way, worth emphasizing that clarity and precision take effort, commitment, and self-awareness. — Paul Romer (@paulmromer)
I suppose “problem of attention” also makes a defensive gut reaction by certain economists less likely…
One of the difficulties is that math-skills can be taught, whereas “commitment, and self-awareness” are more fundamental — and are perhaps best instilled by example. — Lukas Freund (@LukasFreund)
One place to start is Do I Make Myself Clear by Harry Evans, the greatest living editor of the English language: “This book on clear writing is … concerned with how words confuse and mislead, with or without malice aforethought …” — Paul Romer (@paulmromer)
Meanwhile, in another attempt at steering the discussion toward all writing, whether in words or math, I wrote:
- When an assertion is vague, ask for specifics.
- When an assertion is opaque, assume that it is the author’s fault, not yours, and ask for clarification.
— Paul Romer (@paulmromer)
As I put this thread together, I went to Dani’s blog to get the quote that set the discussion in motion. Then I had pleasing sense that we had closed the circle. Dani’s advice, that non-economists should not to be scared by math, is close in spirit to my closing point, that readers should insist that author’s be clear.
Along the way, Lukas, took a chance on online humor and it seemed to turn out ok.
Perhaps also 4. Never write such that “and” accounts for more than 2.6% of the text? 😉 — Lukas Freund (@LukasFreund)
Or, use assertions about the frequency of “and” as an attention getting gimmick. 🙂 — Paul Romer (@paulmromer)
Happy New Year!