Saturday, February 20, 2010

Findings from the ISAs

I've just spend three days at the International Studies Association meetings in New Orleans. I was hoping to make some interdisciplinary buddies here so that we could do interdiscplinary activities together, such as walking and chewing gum at the same time, or perhaps creating a unified theory of the social sciences. Sadly, I was not successful in this. I believe this was because the meetings ended up not being so interdisciplinary at all, the participants were overwhelmingly political scientists. In hindsight maybe my approach was off- I think I could have generated more interest if I had pitched it as spatial recontextualizion of identities and gum at the same time.

In any case, having been at the American Economic Association meetings in the exact same hotel a couple of years ago, I have undertaken an empirical analysis and have three statistically significant findings to report:

1) Political scientists are nicer, more normal people than economists. No surprise there.

2) Political scientists dress way better than economists. This is also no surprise, but it's much, much more dramatic and pronounced than I would have expected. I had thought the majority of the populations in all academic disciplines would be sort of nerdy, but some of the panel sessions I went to, I felt like I was at the Black Cat.

3) Economists have much better presentation skills than political scientists. This surprised me, I would have expected the opposite. My working theory is that being socially maladjusted weirdoes, many economists have realized that when they just be themselves, other people tend to run in the other direction. This makes them understand that they're going to need to put significant thought and effort into their approach if they're going to communicate with others, which leads to good presentation skills. By contrast, a lot of political scientists think they can just get up there and be their well-dressed, hipster selves, and everything else will take care of itself. Often, though, it doesn't. If you don't want to give a typical Powerpoint presentation, that's fine- but at least preparing a few slides or a handout to keep your audience focused is ALWAYS a good idea. Also, reading a prepared script out loud does not make for an effective presentation. I have never seen an economist do that, but I was stunned to see several political scientists do it this week.

On a more substantive note, I was struck by just how much empirical work goes on in political science in the panel sessions I went to. Granted, those were the kind of panel sessions that I tended to gravitate towards, but still- it seems that analyzing data is not some weird, fringe-y activity in political science these days. I was also struck by what I perceived as the strengths and weaknesses of the research findings. When I go to an economics conference, I am typically impressed by the methodological tools that people are using, but pretty underwhelmed by how relevant or interesting their research questions are on the whole. I can't really point to much that's wrong with what people are doing, but I often wonder why they'd want to do it in the first place. What the political scientists were doing was exactly the opposite- all of the issues people were looking at were fascinating. But most of the empirical approaches had pretty glaring flaws, and not just because of the data or whatever, but clear methodological problems that were easy to identify. I've blogged before about the different standards in different disciplines, and the standards for what constitutes a "result" in political science is quite low relative to economics.

Ultimately it seems that there is a lot of untapped potential for collaboration between economists and people from other social sciences on this kind of stuff. If you give them a question, economists have a comparative advantage getting as much mileage towards answering the question as the data allow- your average economist is head and shoulders above your average quantitatively-minded political scientist or sociologist in this regard. But, quantitively-minded social scientists in other disciplines are asking a lot of interesting questions, and asking the interesting questions is something that I don't think the discipline of economics does very well or values as much as it ought to.

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