Stanford Ex-Prez wishes he were an economist

At the end of August, 2023, Marc Tessier-Lavigne (MTL) resigned his position as President of Stanford University. Jerry Yang, Chairman of the Stanford Board of Trustees, summarized the situation in his July 19, 2023, statement. The Scientific Panel created to investigate MTL made had three conclusions. First, they “did find evidence that some members of labs overseen by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne either engaged in inappropriate manipulation of research data or engaged in deficient scientific practices, resulting in significant flaws in those papers.” Second, they did not find any evidence that MTL personally engaged in “research misconduct”. Third, when people pointed out the flaws, “Dr. Tessier-Lavigne took insufficient steps to correct mistakes in the scientific record.” This was not acceptable, and MTL resigned.

Economists were shocked to hear this. How often do authors correct errors in their published papers? In fact, how many journals care about correcting errors? Many people submit comments to journals that point out errors in a published paper only to get the comment rejected. Journals don’t care. I have often told authors of errors in published papers. No one has ever submitted a correction to the journal. They don’t care. I have often told editors of errors in published papers and learned that they don’t care. Economists would be shocked to learn that authors are obligated to correct errors in their papers and will be punished if they don’t take “sufficient steps to correct mistakes in the scientific record.”

Economists are not familiar with the concept of “research misconduct” used in this manner. I often point out to authors errors in their working papers. I thought that this is what colleagues were supposed to do, and that authors would appreciate the information. That was the case when I switched from math to economics over 40 years ago, but that is not the case today. They are instead annoyed.

In one particularly entertaining case, a macroeconomist responded by telling me to engage in an acrobatically challenging autoerotic activity. I did not know how to proceed, so I thought that I would ask him for instructions because the enthusiasm of his recommendation indicated that he must be an expert. However, I quickly realized that I was not interested.

A recent blog post described interactions with Per Krusell: I told him about errors in a working paper, saw the same errors in the published version, and he told me (in an email) that they were aware of my comments but did not make any corrections because they did not want to delay publication. That was 22 years ago and I have not seen any correction submitted to JET. In MTL’s fields, this would be regarded as “research misconduct” but in economics this is just standard operating procedure.

I know that many economists publish work they know is wrong. Even more make little effort to verify the claims they make about the literature and their own work. There are two facts that make this case notable. First, Krusell admitted it in a written document to someone who is definitely not a friend. Second, he is often on the selection committee for the Nobel Prize in Economics, where he sits in judgment on the quality and importance of the work of leading economists. Does this matter to anyone? No. I am sure that neither the Nobel Foundation not the King of Sweden finds anything wrong with any of this because, after all, “it’s just economics, not a real science.”

The MTL case reminded me of a conversation I had with a senior economist. I had told him about some corrupt behavior in economics. He indicated his total lack of interest by saying “Economics is corrupt, it has always been corrupt, and it always will be corrupt.” He also made a comment indicating that this is typical in academia. I took offense at the notion that mathematics was corrupt like economics, so I asked him “What field is as corrupt as economics?”. He said “medical research”, particularly when big money was involved. I said “That may be true, but medical research is very different from economics. I inherited various heart health problems from my father and maternal grandfather. Whatever the level of corruption, medical research has given me the drugs and treatments to deal with those problems and likely allow me to outlive my ancestors. Can you say the same for economics?”

Every field has bad apples. The test is how it deals with them and the value it puts on the validity of the scientific record. The past month has reminded us of two things. The MTL case told us that medical research has standards. This week’s Nobel Prize in Medicine highlighted the amazing science behind the mRNA vaccines for Covid.

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