Tufte Takes Aim At Economists

Edward Tufte, he of the Napoleon's March to Moscow fame, has posted a chapter of his new book, wherein he savages David Galenson for, among other things, inadvertantly using puns. The rather slipshod way in which economists often present data, in Tufte's view, is worthy of an entirely new word:

economisting: (e kon' o mist' ing) 1. The act or process of converting limited evidence into grand claims by means of rhetorical ploys, especially punning. 2. The belief or practice that empirical evidence can only confirm and never disconfirm a favored theory. 3. Conclusions that are theory-driven, not evidence based. See also confirmation bias, painting with a broad brush, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, post-modern critical theory, marketing.

Now, I've not read the book Tufte goes on a tear about -- Galenson's Painting Outside the Lines -- so I've got no way to comment on Tufte's discussion about the various arguments presented in the book.

What I will say is that attacking economists for their use of language is a bit of a low- blow. Trade-offs occur in every part of life, and devoting oneself to the study and practice of economics might mean spending less time focusing on the art of written communication. Now, like many people who stop through T&B, I've suffered through any number of economics texts that are truly terribly written, regardless of the the quality of the analysis (in my anecdotal evidence here, there is no correlation between quality of analysis and writing), that could have done with more judicious input from an editor. And certainly being better writers might well help economists communicate their ideas to a wider audience, but surely some allowance must be made for the very different sort of pursuit science is from the humanities. I tend to think Tufte grabbed some "low-hanging fruit" for his book; why choose economists over, say, nuclear physicists? I would guess it's because, as a statistician, Tufte doesn't face the technical hurdle of understanding the analysis in Galenson's work and can so make a better judgement between well and poorly written work. His own biases showing, perhaps. After spending some months looking at the energy industry in the US, as well as the possibilities/problems with some alternative energy, I can assure you that physicists, geologists, and what seems to be the vast majority of environmentalists suffer from the same problems Galenson is taken to task for. Namely, not being great writers. Their messages get lost, to greater or lesser extent, due to varying abilities to marshall language to the service of their point. Why economists require a special category is unclear to me.

(NB: While the one chapter cannot represent the book as a whole, I'm mystified by one part of this sample. When Tufte angrily notes that Galenson mentions not a single auction price (emphasis his) in his graphs and tables, Galenson's text mentions it frequently. This criticism comes just below two graphs apparently taken from Painting Outside the Lines with the abscissa labeled "Age" and the ordinate labeled Ln(Price). That sounds suspiciously close to "prices" to me. The use of a log in speaking about prices -- as with wages -- is a frequent and long-standing habit of economics. As I said, not having read the Galenson book, I can't comment on the value of choosing this measure. But if it is this choice that is truly Tufte's bugaboo, then perhaps he should have brought up the reasoning that lead to the practice, rather than suggest by selective presentation of a single example, that Galenson is simply slipshod in his work.)


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This page contains a single entry by published on January 18, 2005 10:16 AM.

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