How blogging is like being bad at math

By Felix Salmon
July 2, 2010
gut-wrenching defeat in the World Cup, the shop steward of the International Brotherhood of Econobloggers instant messaged me to remind me that I still haven't written about Kartik Athreya. Apparently this is grounds for expulsion, and so I thank Heather Horn, with a smart little essay against the close reading technique often being found in English classes, for giving me an angle. (I'm not even going to attempt a list of everybody else who's written great stuff contra Athreya, but for starters try Thoma, DeLong, Yglesias, Sumner, Cowen, Kling, Avent, Wilkinson, Konczal, Wade, Merkel, Harding, Evans-Pritchard, and Ritholtz.)

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Just as I was headed down the pub to drown my sorrow at Ghana’s gut-wrenching defeat in the World Cup, the shop steward of the International Brotherhood of Econobloggers instant messaged me to remind me that I still haven’t written about Kartik Athreya. Apparently this is grounds for expulsion, and so I thank Heather Horn, with a smart little essay against the close reading technique often being found in English classes, for giving me an angle. (I’m not even going to attempt a list of everybody else who’s written great stuff contra Athreya, but for starters try Thoma, DeLong, Yglesias, Sumner, Cowen, Kling, Avent, Wilkinson, Konczal, Wade, Merkel, Harding, Evans-Pritchard, and Ritholtz.)

Anyway, Horn’s point is that any organized attempt to look deeply at something risks being self-defeating: you can end up disappearing down all manner of silly dead ends, and understanding less than you would with a more-is-more approach.

This absolutely rings true to me. For reasons which today elude me, I decided when I was doing my A-levels in England to do what they call “double maths” — essentially taking two mathematics exams (Maths and Further Maths), in the same two years you’d normally spend studying for just one. As a result, we had a highly accelerated mathematics curriculum, and there was no time to circle back and make sure the class had understood something before moving on to the next thing. It was all rather sink-or-swim.

And at any given point in time, I was sinking — along, I think, with most of the rest of my class. I was pretty fuzzy about what we’d been taught in previous weeks, and I was very unlikely to understand what the teacher was trying to say at any given time. Maths class, for me, was a combination of panic and incomprehension, combined with a desperate attempt to bluff my way through as much as I could. (Needless to say, if you’re reduced to trying to bluff, mathematics is not the best subject to choose.)

Yet somehow my classmates and I all did very well, at the end of the two years, when it came time to taking the actual exams. As I recall, nearly everybody taking double maths wound up getting an A in their Maths A-level, and most of us got an A or a B in Further Maths as well. Somehow we had managed to gain a pretty good grasp of the subject by dint of sheer velocity: the mechanism, I think, was that a desperate attempt to understand a new concept had the effect of making earlier ideas drop into place. And that the best way of mastering the Maths curriculum was not so much to study it directly, but rather to try to study the Further Maths curriculum: even getting halfway there would bring you pretty much up to speed on the stuff that went before.

Something similar, I think, happens with blogging. Bloggers tend to be foxes, rather than hedgehogs; it’s pretty clear that Athreya is an archetypal hedgehog and has a deep-seated mistrust of foxes. We skip around a lot of different things, and much of the time we don’t really understand them. But somehow the accumulated effect of all that skipping around is to make connections and develop understandings which hedgehogs often lack. What’s more, we live, as Athreya admits, in a highly complex world — one which there are serious limits to what economics can do on its own.

So I’ll continue to have a healthy skepticism when it comes to everything I read, whether it comes from people with deep immersion in economics PhD programs or whether it comes from an anonymous blog. But most of the smart and relevant insights I find will come from bloggers: they might not fully grok the mathematical underpinnings of the economics that they’re talking about, but they are useful and thought-provoking and germane in a way that economists often are not. And by dint of sheer velocity, they achieve a very modern kind of knowledge — one very well suited to the blogging platform. Maybe that’s what I really learned in those mathematics classes — the ability to synthesize bits of information that I’d picked up in the prior weeks and months. It turns out to be quite a handy skill.

15 comments

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Dr. Athreya begins inauspiciously by lumping together distinguished economics professors Krugman and Delong as “auto-didact[s] or non-didact[s],” in the same category with non-economic journalists John Stossel and Matt Yglesias. What follows is a confused treatise on the inaccessibility of expert knowledge that flounders into deep questions of education and communication theory, where Athreya could charitably be described as a “non-didact,” were that a real term. And how is a blog entry different from an op-ed piece? Krugman’s most recent column, featuring the “the invisible bond vigilante and the confidence fairy,” is full of gross oversimplifications, but surely the average reader was left with more knowledge, at least about Krugman’s views. If Athreya was correct that econoblogs are worse than useless, then we may as well abandon opinion journalism, along with popular science journalism.

Dr. Athreya says “Most of us readily accept the proposition that [o]ncology requires training, and rarely give time over to non-medical-professionals’ musings. Do we expect advances in cell-biology to be immediately accessible to anyone with even a college degree?” Well, yes, we do. Of course there are blogs that provide non-experts with access to scientific knowledge and recent research about in less technical terms, even in oncology. Consider
scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org,
which recently discussed the roles of telomeres, tumor necrosis factor, and statin drugs in causing or fighting various forms of cancer. There are many, many other blogs, such as Realclimate and Pharyngula (another excellent Science blog), that bridge the gap between science and opinion in a manner that traditional journalism cannot. This kind of blogging fills in a yawning gap in our information space, and has already grown to be surprisingly important and influential in Western society and polity. In short, I think Dr. Athreya is laboring under serious misapprehensions about the role blogs can play, and I think in a few decades his essay will read like an angry polemic by a Medieval Scholastic railing against vulgar translations of the Bible.

Posted by ORD | Report as abusive

Rather hilarious that the Doctor (of ‘philosphy’, no doubt) sees economics sharing a place amongst the sciences with oncology, etc.

Posted by Gaw | Report as abusive

I think you took Ms. Horn’s little essay a lot further than she was going to. Why Horn rather than Berlin?

Posted by carpingdemon | Report as abusive

I look like a Hedgehog, but seem to be a Fox. Who knew? That explains why I’m never allowed in the Hen House as well.

Posted by DonthelibertDem | Report as abusive

Many economists still want to look at their field as being a hard science like physics, were models can be created based on hard numbers. Since economics deals with the behavior of sometimes irrational human beings, there is no consistency. Macroeconomics deals with large masses of human beings, so one might think behavior would average out, when in fact the large masses amplify the distortions because of herd mentality.

Perhaps Econ 101 should spend some time studying stock cow herds, asking why the herd gathers in a corner when a storm is coming, or why they will move single file behind a leader for some reason. With humans, the key is creating panic and fear. You don’t need to actually have a shortage of fuel at the pumps to create gas lines, you just have to create a perception of shortage. So when Goldman and Morgan Stanley created the perception of an oil shortage in 2008, prices skyrocketed, even though there had been no genuine disruption to the market.

So when Dr Ahtreya and his economist cohorts admit they are closer to the humanities than to hard science, I might start trusting them. Until that time, I will look at their writings with the same skepticism I use on bloggers. Not saying I discount the writings of either group, but I do look for supporting facts, etc.

Posted by randymiller | Report as abusive

Very nice. Perhaps simply summed up by the (revised) title of Tyler Cowen’s book “Infovore.” Admit to not having read it, and am not even sure what it is about. But the title speaks to this issue quite succinctly I would suggest.

Posted by martin66 | Report as abusive

Having pursued in MS in math after a couple of degrees in the social sciences (where you can most definitely fake it), I can appreciate your analogy.

However, unless I’m missing something, all you seem to be saying is that some people are good at detail, while others are good at the big picture. Hardly a revelation.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

As a layman reader of this site and other econoblogs for quite some time, I have to say I agree with most of the premises of Athreya’s essay. Economics is hard, I don’t fully understand it and the entire mess likely would be better left to highly trained professionals.

But as someone who has had to make some hard decisions, I have come to realize that while I can allow highly trained professionals to give me advice or even make my decisions for me, the consequences of those actions will always remain with me alone.

While macroeconomics may be a technocrat’s dream (the complexity of formualae!), it is ultimately the layman’s problem. I think the econobloggers understand that point much better than the academics do.

Posted by prospector | Report as abusive

This article attests to the power of positive drinking, of which Kartik Athreya might try doing a bit more before next setting pixel to screen.

The consequences of enshrouding economics in arcane incomprehensibility are all around us, yet more agonizing than any World Cup defeat. In the aftermath of drastic failure, whether systemic or criminally contrived, trite mythological substitutes for history from which no human being is likely to learn, nor care to, are pseudo-academic, mathematically futile and no fun at the pub, either.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Yet another blog post about blogging.

Posted by xyz70 | Report as abusive

It seems like the total failure of most pros and particularly those in government to see the macro tsunami that washed over us catapulted financial blogging to the big time.

Folks hate being knock upside the head from something they don’t see coming and you can bet they are looking for some visibility now. How much macro visibility are folks like Athreya providing us these days?

At least much of the blogosphere has been able to work out a pretty good story for what the heck just happened. And better still, it is lit up with possibilities for what might happen next. To listen to those whose living is at the intersection of economics and government, you would think that a gigantic 10,000 year financial asteriod came in from outer space and soon this will all be just a bad memory.

Those among us who pay attention to history notice that foul economic weather is actually pretty common and we aren’t interested in being stuck in a blizzard in our bermuda shorts like last time.

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive

but maybe you’re saying blogging is like being good at math? I don’t think anyone, even the best math people, really understands the hard math concepts the first time they see them. they just immerse themselves and eventually it sinks in.

Posted by williamperkins | Report as abusive

Substitute “barber/surgeon” for “economist” and “medicine” for “economics”, and Dr. Athreya’s essay makes perfect sense. He is writing from the perspective of someone who has studied bloodletting for years and feels no one from outside the discipline has any useful perspective on medicine, as they are not good bloodletters. We can evaluate the prescriptions we receive from oncologists against the clinical outcomes; Lucas’ models are inherently untestable. Instead “modern” macroeconomics only has internal consistency and elegance, like the barber-surgeons’ work. Economics at all levels has no practical benchmarks for the success of its work, except for perhaps Esther DuFlo. Of course people are going to trample on a discipline like that.

The times in which change occurs most rapidly are when an institution feels threatened from the outside.

Posted by Derrida | Report as abusive

I had pretty much the opposite experience with maths A-level. Up until the year before A-levels I was in the top stream for maths, which was strongly accelerated. We were doing freshman undergrad level stuff by the time I left. I certainly wasn’t near the top of the class, but I wasn’t struggling either. But when it came to A-levels, I realised I wanted to go in a general humanities direction, so I took maths instead of double maths (my only sciencey subject). And I found, dropping down into the stream for people who weren’t doing Further Maths, that I really struggled to remaster material I’d learned and moved on from a year or more before. Most of the advanced topics we’d covered were of no relevance at all (at least for exam purposes) to the basic maths A-level and because we hadn’t spent much time reinforcing the knowledge required before switching to some other topic, it didn’t stick as well as it should have.

I still managed to get an A, but it was a lot more of a close thing than it should have been.

Posted by GingerYellow | Report as abusive

I totally agree that most of the time we don’t really get the meaning of what we read. Probably because there’s just so much information everywhere and we’d like to grab most of it, if possible. More than that, we move from a thing to another because they’re so eye-catching and we sometimes forget why we actually clicked on. But you’re also right that this kind of superficial skipping around articles and posts on various blogs helps us make complex connections between very different things, so who knows what innovative idea or discovery could come up to our filled up brains just before falling asleep…

Posted by Len.Williams | Report as abusive