Science on the Internet

January 26, 2012

A post by Paul Romer

Tyler Cowen recently pointed to a paper of mine on financial regulation and the dynamics of rules that I wrote for the IMF.  Dave Backus and John Cochrane then blogged their thoughtful reactions.  I take up the discussion about financial regulation in a separate post, but here I want to focus on the role of the blogosphere in the scientific process.

The sequence with Tyler, Dave, and John suggests how blogs might change economic discourse.  Blogs are a more open way to organize competition in the market for ideas.  Blogs also allow more people to see economists thinking out loud, something that used to require a seat in the seminar room.

Marginal Revolution, Tyler’s blog with Alex Tabarrok, is a new alternative to the traditional gatekeepers in economics — the journal editors or the program leaders at the NBER.  Tyler and Alex earned this position simply by being good at what they do.  Adding sites like this may do more to increase competition in the space of ideas than traditional strategies such as creating new journals.  A mention from a site like MR is now an alternative way for new ideas to get attention, one that can parallel the traditional mechanisms.

On the NYU Stern Economics blog, Dave Backus offered comments and questions about my paper, just as he would in a seminar.  In the same spirit, John Cochrane responded with some evidence of his own, which raised new questions.  As an author, it’s enormously helpful to get seminar-style comments and questions so quickly from a diverse group of people.  An added bonus is that those who are interested can follow along.

I’ve had other productive exchanges in the blogosphere but one in particular stands out. Chris Blattman attended a presentation I gave on charter cities.  He asked a question as I was speaking and we talked about it afterwards. Then he wrote a blog post with more detailed comments.  With time to reflect, I responded with a post of my own and Chris followed up with two more  posts.  The exchange with Chris gave his readers a window into our discussion, but it also had a lasting effect on my thinking about rules. The development of the ideas in my IMF paper resulted in part from this exchange.

Recently, Paul Krugman welcomed the more open process of science that the internet allows.  He is unsentimental about the “old days” when senior economists acted as gatekeepers and slowed down discussion of new ideas.  This kind of behavior is what motivated the old saying that “science progresses funeral by funeral.”

Of course, the internet offers its own set of challenges to productive discourse.  Part of the point of my IMF paper was that new technologies typically require a rethink of existing rules.  For example, anonymous reviews may have been helpful when they were moderated by journal editors and seen only by the author of the paper under review. On open science blogs, there may be no useful role for anonymity. As Krugman has also noted, there are still a few glitches to be worked out, such as how to prevent online impersonation.  But with a little tolerance for noise while the rules catch up, we will eventually figure out how to do science over the internet.  The system that emerges might keep the signal-to-noise ratio high yet still be more open and dynamic.

Posted by Dave Backus for Paul Romer

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6 Responses to “Science on the Internet”

  1. David Backus Says:

    More on the technology and sociology of ideas, from Jonah Lehrer, in this week’s New Yorker. Gated except for the intro.

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer


  2. [...] 1. Science on the internet. [...]


  3. [...] Science on the Internet – Paul Romer [...]


  4. [...] Science on the Internet – Paul Romer [...]


  5. [...] a less related note, a shift from procedural rules to discretion is what Paul Romer thinks is necessary for financial regulation. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); [...]


  6. [...] not join this boycott in any formal sense, again while expressing support for the final vision.  I do contribute to the open science idea in a number of ways, including through this [...]


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