Compared to other fields, economics certainly has its fair share of controversy, and maybe a little bit more. As a fledgling freshman in Econ 170, I am surprised by how many statements my professor prefaces with the disclaimer “most economists would agree that…”. On the political stage, consensus on what should seem general economic “fact”–budget figures, growth rates, etc.—often seems fleeting at best and nonexistent at worst. While dissension doubtlessly underlies any healthy debate, quarrelsomeness and vehemence can detract. Proper balance between controversy and courtesy lays the foundation for a more fruitful dialogue.
An article from the NPR Planet Money blog about this year’s recipients of the Noble Prize for economics reminded me of the especially quarrelsome nature of the subject. It quotes a 2010 interview from the New Yorker in which one recipient of the prize—Eugene F. Fama—challenges the assertions of Robert J. Shiller, another recipient of the prize, in a rather exasperated and personal manner. Quoting Fama:
“O.K., right. Here’s a question to turn it around. Can you have a bubble in all asset markets at the same time? Does that make any sense at all? Maybe it does in somebody’s view of the world, but I have a real problem with that. Maybe you can convince me there can be bubbles in individual securities. It’s a tougher story to tell me there’s a bubble in a whole sector of the market, if there isn’t something artificial going on. When you start telling me there’s a bubble in all markets, I don’t even know what that means.”
I find it pretty surprising that only a few years later these men were co-recipients of the Nobel prize for their work studying asset prices. The co-winners’ disagreement—and it seems even grudge—seems to reflect the threat of hostility (instead of polite disagreement) to cordial discourse in the field.