The literature, markets, accessibility, expertise

From an excellent practical handbook on writing, Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists:

Scholars learn to fear the literature in graduate school. I remember Professor Louis Wirth, one of the distinguished members of the Chicago school, putting Erving Goffman, then a fellow graduate student of mine, in his place with the literature gambit. It was just what we all feared. Believing Wirth had not given sufficiently serious attention to some influential ideas about operationalism, Goffman challenged him in class with quotations from Percy Bridgeman’s book on the subject. Wirth smiled and asked sadistically, “Which edition is that, Mr. Goffman?” Maybe there was an important different between editions, though none of us believed that. We thought, instead, that we’d better be careful about the literature or They Could Get You. “They” included not only teachers but peers, who might welcome an opportunity to show how well they knew the literature at your expense.
-Becker, p. 136

I’ve run across a varient of this problem often in discussions of finance, risk, regulation – though it’s common enough in most arenas. The problem is this: you need to have some knowledge of a subject to speak intelligently about it. But if the knowledge required to legitimately speak is set too high, then only experts are able to participate in consequential discussions that affect many, many people. Do you have a degree in finance? Spent ten years working on Wall Street? No? Then why should I listen to you?

This contention manifests in various guises. ‘Friedrich Hayek dealt with that’, or ‘your suggestion needs to take into account the Modigliani-Miller theorem.’ Or (as in the overrated Animal Spirits) a more subtle variant that posits all possible economic activity and politics on a continuum between Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. All of these are fair to a point – after all, reinventing the wheel is a waste of time, and we really should allow for the fact that some people know more than others when it comes to understanding (understanding what to do about) modern finance.

But these are also exclusionary tactics, and we should not overlook the fact that ‘experts’, particularly experts in professionalized fields (finance, law, academia, medicine) are susceptible to normative isomorphism – a fancy way to say that when everyone gets their MBAs from the same top 25 management schools, their language, outlooks, ideas, opinions, will tend to converge. This is the massively problematic aspect of having all of our regulatory officials coming out of the same Wall Street firms they are regulating. Not that they are necessarily ‘captured’ out of the box, but that everyone in the field’s assumptions tend to converge. And so someone who proposes, say, to simply do away with derivatives altogether, is seen as too much an outlier to be taken seriously.

As to solutions, I think there are two ways to deal with the problem. The first is to make participation in the conversation not dependent on performing some kind of requisite wink-and-nod to the dominant literatures/language/assumptions. This can get ugly, as Lena pointed me to a recent episode of TAL, which deals with people representing themselves. And if you peruse the political landscape of opinion, it’s more than a wee bit daunting to take seriously the people who suggest we should abolish the Federal Reserve. But then again, the ‘experts’ have completely screwed the pooch over the last decade, and why should we continue to listen to them?

The second approach means making the debate more accessible for more people, so that you can argue with the professionalized assumptions of your discipline, but these cannot be assumptions so rarified that you can dismiss people because they don’t want to stipulate at the outset to your formula and the assumptions it contains. That is, you need to make arguments that are accessible and make it possible for people to legitimately disagree with you. The ‘bar’ for legitimate participation cannot be a PhD and a decade of experience, but a good-faith effort to learn enough about a subject that pointed questions can be debated.

Perhaps this is asking too much. I’ll end with Becker:

The literature has the advantage of what is sometimes called ideological hegemony over you. If its authors own the territory, their approach to it seems as natural and reasonable as your new and different approach seems stragne and unreasonable. Their ideology controls how readers think about the topic. As a result, you have to explain why you haven’t asked those questions and gotten those answers. Proponents of the dominant argument don’t have to explain their failure to look at things your way.
-Becker, p. 147

And his solution? We should require serious people to routinely look at their subject matter in different ways, sometimes vastly different ways. Be respectful to experts, but don’t be crowded by the them. Use the literature, but don’t let the literature use you.

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