Undercover Economist

Economicky words are just plain icky

Why can’t economists just speak plainly and clearly? The dismal science has had an image problem for a long time — long enough for most people to forget that the “dismal science” insult was hurled by the despicably eloquent racist Thomas Carlyle, in an argument over whether black plantation workers should be paid for their work or motivated with the “beneficent whip”.

If you’re arguing with an apologist for racism and he has better lines than you, you’re doing something wrong. True in 1849, true today.

Yet the problem seems to have intensified in the past few years; gone are the glory days of Freakonomics, when every economist seemed an investigator with the cachet of Sherlock Holmes. Now we economists are painted as jargon-spouting spreadsheet jockeys, malevolent string-pulling ideologues, or worst of all, “experts”. What went wrong and what are we going to do about it?

Language is part of our problem. Even in a medium that demands brevity and clarity — Twitter — we seem to be drawn to polysyllabic obfuscations like wasps to jam. Marina Della Giusta and colleagues at the University of Reading recently conducted a linguistic analysis of the tweets of the top 25 academic economists and the top 25 scientists on Twitter. (The top 3 economists: Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Erik Brynjolfsson; the top 3 scientists: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Richard Dawkins.)

Ms Della Giusta and her colleagues found that the economists tweeted less and had fewer Twitter conversations with strangers. I sympathise, but nevertheless the scientists managed it and the economists did not. The economists also used less accessible language with more complex words and more abbreviations. Both their language and their behaviour was less chatty.

This is true in more formal settings, too. Last year on Bank Underground, a blog for Bank of England staff, analyst Jonathan Fullwood compared the bank’s reports to the writings of Dr Seuss. Long words, long sentences or long paragraphs make for difficult prose. The Cat In The Hat stands at one end of the scale; bank reports at the other.

The World Bank is another culprit: this summer its chief economist Paul Romer made few friends when he berated his colleagues over their feel-good bureaucratese in which projects “are emerging” while “players” are “partnering”, all the while advising “corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatise state-owned enterprises and labour market/social protection reform”. It is surprisingly easy to write like this when you don’t know what you think, or cannot agree, or dare not say. The result occupies the overlap on a Venn diagram between unobjectionable and incomprehensible.

According to Stanford’s Literary Lab, World Bank reports were not always like this: they once described specific facts (“Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade”) and what the World Bank had done to improve them.

We should do better, whether writing a tweet or a report. But there is a reason that this stuff is hard: politics. In most spheres of life people are happy to trust doctors, engineers and scientists to get on with whatever it is they do. Politics changes that: when scientists must communicate ideas about climate change, vaccines, or genetic engineering, they suddenly find themselves dragged into political fights for which they have neither the stomach nor weapons. Scientific literacy is no cure: on contentious topics such as climate change, political polarisation actually increases with education.

Economists, of course, cannot boast the same regard as doctors, engineers and scientists — but they are on contested territory more often. Economics discusses public spending, inequality, regulation, taxes and other topics in the no-man’s-land of a political war. No wonder we hesitate to engage on Twitter; no wonder we write reports that try to please everyone by saying nothing much. We then seem evasive and tedious, so nobody trusts us. But when we set out a position clearly and plainly, we risk being dragged into poisonous squabbles — something that has happened repeatedly during and since the Brexit referendum.

There are no easy answers — although emerging evidence from political scientist Dan Kahan’s research group at Yale University suggests that we might do well by trying to engage people’s sense of curiosity. It is not enough to write with clarity; the great science communicators, from Carl Sagan to David Attenborough, inspire a sense of wonder. If we use a surprising fact as an ambush, that will provoke a defensive response; far better to present an intriguing puzzle. But if we cannot inspire awe, we should at least write clearly — a habit that helps us think clearly, too.

Simplicity alone, of course, is not enough. “We’re going to build a big, beautiful wall and Mexico is going to pay for it,” has the same simple tone as Dr Seuss, although it lacks his compassion. Does it reflect clear, trustworthy thinking? I do not think so, Sam-I-Am.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 24 November 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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