Brian Cox, Mary Beard, Mick Aston, Niall Ferguson are all (just about) household names. They each have academic success – and their own television programs (“Wonders of the Solar System“, “Meet the Romans”, “Time Team” and “History of the British Empire” respectively). They cross the boundary of public communication with scholarly contribution with considerable success. They are to varying degrees the “rock stars” of modern academia.
For the most part economists do not get their own television programs – but they do get a lot of exposure in the media. Almost every piece of government policy or statistical news release reportage is accompanied by commentary from economists. Some of these people are paid as professional communicators, some are concerned analysts, some are consultants and some are academics. Each brings a different angle.
And then there are the “rock star” economists. Although a blog and on-line presence is an almost indispensable part of a public communicator profile today, rock star economists are not a new phenomenon. John Maynard Keynes was named amongst the top 100 most influential people of the 20th century by Time magazine.
‘Rock stars’ are people whose work has incredible public influence, and/or incredible influence on public perception of economic thinking such that they become a by-word for the credibility of ideas. They are both generators of original ideas, and exceptional communicators.
Some come to the public eye after decades of underlying work revealing a solid grounding that garners public trust – think of the initial reaction to the Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart book “This Time is Different”. Some capitalise on their high level skills in analysing and connecting events and data, such as Nouriel Roubini who rose to fame following the East Asian crisis of the late 1990s. Others produce work that provokes debate and questioning, such as Thomas Piketty’s recent “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”.
Long standing “rock star” status is then conferred on those who maintain a constant communication stream with both their discipline and the public – acting as a conduit of ideas between these communities – people such as Paul Krugman. All academics are communicators to some degree – but these people are super-communicators. They play an important role in transmitting ideas to the general public.
And if they are successful they reap the rewards of public acclaim and form a focus of public attention for the ideas in the discipline, which is a heady drug indeed. And with these rewards come risks.
The first is that the time spent communicating will detract from the ability to do the work required to stay true to the underpinnings, although some valiant souls at least claim to thrive on the stimulation and urgency these pressures create. The second, and probably most costly, is the risk of making a mistake.
Witness the vilification heaped upon Reinhart and Rogoff for the mistake found in the datasets underlying their book – rather than applauding their academic honesty and integrity in having made all their hard-collected data publicly available – public opinion focussed on how these errors supported the unpopular fiscal austerity policies following the global financial crisis. The oracle is not allowed to be human.
I suspect every economist who speaks in public has experienced the concern over accurate and transparent communication. Some of us are better at it than others. However, it is important that social scientists are good, clear communicators. The messages are important, and they have real and meaningful impact on the lives of all players in the economy. Just as scientists communicate the danger of climate change, economists need to place the complex social choices before the citizens of our economies, and clearly outline the options and issues.
Social scientists need to make us think about the important issues and how our choices affect outcomes – issues such as minimum wages, land tax, mining tax, parental leave, deficit reduction, housing prices do not evolve in a vacuum. Ultimately the “rock star” economist is driven by the same passion that drives the academic in their office – the desire to understand the forces driving the economic choices we make – but some are driven by their conviction or desire for change to communicate these views in a very public way.
As economics is a social science, and economists are keenly aware that what we offer is analysis of social choices made by our community, this is a very necessary and important part of what the profession aims to achieve.
Mardi Dungey is not a rock star economist, does not keep an economics blog, twitter account or facebook page. She nevertheless is deeply engrossed in thinking about and modelling the impact of changes in particularly the financial world on the distribution of economic outcomes.
She is an organiser for the 2014 ESAM/ACE conference, the first ever joint conference between the Econometric Society Australasia Meeting and the Australian Conference of Economists, in Hobart, 1-4 July.