Economic Writing

Writing

Most economic writing hurts. The English, my goodness, is painful. It doesn't take Deirdre McCloskey to realize this. The following quote shows my point.

Relatively, this isn't that bad. But its competition isn't fierce.

For example, few writers on economic methodology recognize that the activities of formulating economic models and investigating their implications are a sort of conceptual exploration. Instead, most mistakenly regard these activities as offering empirical hypotheses and assess them in terms of some philosophical model of confirmation or falsification.

This doozy comes from a JEL article by Daniel Hausman. I recommend the article. He got the ideas right, once I understood him.

To be fair Hausman writes on philosophy. It's a rule: philosophy cannot be comprehensible to us simpletons. Nevertheless, economics and philosophy are better advanced through writing well.

It doesn't take much.

Classic trick #1- remove half the words.

For example, few writers on economic methodology recognize that the activities of formulating economic models and investigating their implications are a sort of conceptual exploration. Instead, most mistakenly regard these activities as offering empirical hypotheses and assess them in terms of some philosophical model of confirmation or falsification.

This turns into:

Few writers recognize that economic models are a conceptual exploration. Instead, most mistakenly regard this activity as offering empirical hypotheses and assess them in terms of falsification.

Have we lost the meaning? I don't believe so. If I did lose something, what?

Classic trick #1 turns gobbledygook into English. A good writer, not me, could take it much further. My quick rewrite would be:

Few writers understand that economic models are conceptual tools. Instead, most falsely think of models as right or wrong, subject to The Data.

That still isn't great. None of my writing is. I don't mean to disparage Prof. Hausman, but what reader has time to parse through 12 pages of  gobbledygook? Time is scarce.

Simple editing will help our arguments. We will better advance knowledge.

One thought on “Economic Writing

  1. Appreciate your sentiment and I'm all for a bit of cut-it-in-half, but I would say you did lose something. Falsification isn't quite the same idea as right or wrong because it alludes to work and (more) philosophy by Karl Popper. Technically something can be falsified but still right, if you believe yet other philosophers like Lakatos.

    And herein lies the rub.

    Gobbledygook writing, I believe, sometimes lives in symbiosis with gobledegook thinking. Gobblegoock writers probably think they are referencing great, sophisticated thinking, when all they're doing is referencing more gobledegook.

    But as an editor you have to discern and decide on this. And I believe that to do that well you have to understand the subject almost as well as the writer.

    Simple editing will advance our arguments. But the route to simplicity often takes you through some complex areas.

    My favourite example of this is Steven Hawking's opening to the Brief History of Time.

    (1988) It starts:
    A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's tortoises all the way down!”

    It's a simple narrative way of expaining ideas very few of us could comprehend at any fully developed way.

    Anyway I've got to do something else now. As you say, time is scarce.

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