The unavoidable riskiness of fame

The following, by Tyler Cowen, more or less makes a point I had made on Twitter.

There is a genuine tension between becoming (and staying) “famous” and expressing all the appropriate levels of agnosticism on issues, which fairly often ought deserve quite an extreme agnosticism (see Mark Thoma on this).  It is hard to do both, and you can see this tension in the writings of most if not all well-known economists, at least in their more public pronouncements.  In the “good old days” that tension could be elided.  Academic discourse took place at relatively closed seminars, no quick responses were required, word traveled slowly, back and forth was much less rapid, and in general transparency was lower all around.

This is in the context of the Reinhart and Rogoff unforced errors, and you can click through to Cowen for that connection.

My standard talk on blogging and social media for academics includes some comments on dangers. Among them is that putting your ideas out there and promoting them is risky. Even with the best of intentions, one makes mistakes.* Eventually one is bound to make a very bad one on some point or other. The damage that will do is commensurate with how much you invested in whatever position it seemed to support, as well as proportional to how “famous” you are. Promote your work from the rooftops in a certain way and achieve some fame from doing so, and the big mistake could be ruinous. (I do not speak from personal experience. But it doesn’t take too long to see it happen to others. I’m also not all that “famous,” nor do I want to be.)

It’s also true that some (not all) journalists tend to promote risk. They push for a clear position. They might deny this, but I’m on the other end of the line, and I know what I’m being pressured or cajoled into saying. If one wants to stay (even appropriately) nuanced, it’s hard. The safest thing to do is to shut up.

And then what? Your work, or the good work of the community, is either promoted by others — perhaps in ways you don’t agree with — or not promoted at all. And what is the point of work that receives no notice?

There’s no easy answer here. The best I can say is it’s a continuum. You can, to some extent, choose how much risk you take. Just because the world may demand that you provide the clear sound bite doesn’t mean you always have to comply. When you’re confident and/or the risk seems low enough for your tastes, speak your mind. At other times, hold back or hedge as appropriate. Truth is often nuanced whether that’s appreciated or not. It also helps to write up the full details for the public (e.g., on a blog) so when your words are taken out of context you have something to point to with the details.

Above all, it’s prudent to behave as if, when you stumble, you don’t expect the world to stop your fall. Of those paying any attention, half may welcome it. Most of the other half will be indifferent. Trying to change the world is a high risk lifestyle. The Reinhart and Rogoff episode is just the latest case study.

* I am not taking a position here on whether R and R made an honest mistake.


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