So a new brouhaha has developed over some comments I made in a blog post last year when discussing the potential professional misconduct in L’Affaire Hoynes (see here for my initial comments, and here for the very, very long EJMR thread on this). Justin Wolfers wrote a column for the NYT where he quoted one sentence from that post.
I think I can clarify by describing the brief email exchange that Justin and I had last week, as it might provide an instructive case study of how the sausage gets made in popular economic journalism. Justin has generously granted me permission to publish the entire email exchange (the only redaction being a phone number).
On Wednesday, August 16, 2017, at 5:54 pm, Justin emailed me:
It was fun to see you in London a couple of weeks ago. And even more fun to see how much we ended up agreeing on a bunch of issues.
I’m writing, instead, about something we likely disagree more about – the Economics Job Market Rumors forum. You probably aren’t surprised to hear that I’m less sympathetic to it than I understand you to be. I’m writing about it for this weekend’s New York Times, and planned to quote from your blog post, here: https://gborjas.org/2016/07/19/ejmr-is-refreshing/
But I also want to make sure that I don’t misrepresent your views. If you’ve revised your views, please do let me know.
The main focus of my column is a paper that analyzes the forum in greater detail. I’ve attached the paper, FYI. And in light of this paper, I wanted to see if you had anything to add about these issues.
Finally, apologies for asking you about this at the last moment, but I think that my editor is going to close the column sometime on Friday morning.
The attachment was Alice H. Wu’s paper on “Gender Bias in Academia: Evidence from Economics Job Market Rumors Forum.”
I clicked on the link to my blog post that Justin provided. That link (here it is again) goes to a post about how EJMR exposes what I consider to be the ridiculous “cutesy” type of research that so dominates applied economics today. It presents the fake abstract for a fake paper entitled “The Very Short-Run Health Effects of Pokemon Go: Evidence From GPS Data,” with the paper claiming that because Pokemon Go leads to more exercise, it increases lifetime income by several thousand dollars. I reread that post, saw nothing in it that I would change, and quickly replied at 6:14 pm:
It was indeed nice to catch up with you in London. That was a most interesting event—something that I will remember for sure as opposed to most of the other conferences that become a blur in my mind after a few weeks.
As for EJMR, I reread the blog post that you want to quote from. There’s nothing there that I would change my mind about.
And off the record for your background so you better know where I was coming from in that post. I found that Pokemon abstract hilarious for a simple reason. If someone walked down to your office and said that they were planning to write that paper, the polite thing to do—which I’ve done myself–is to say “hmm, what an interesting experiment” even though deep down inside you would know that it’s absolutely ridiculous and it’s downright pathetic that applied micro has come down to this. EJMR seems to be the only place where people can say out loud that the emperor has no clothes. And that’s indeed a refreshing difference from the self-censorship that we all use in public to discuss the thousands of “Blah blah blah: Evidence from Blah blah blah” papers.
It’s easy to find a ton of posts in EJMR that are offensive—as I’m sure you will point out this weekend—but it’s also easy to find posts like the one about Pokemon or the ones about professional misbehavior that are informative and that information would simply disappear into the ether (or be much harder to uncover) in the absence of that forum.
Unfortunately, due to family circumstances that eat up a lot of my time these days I have not been able to follow EJMR closely in recent months. But I’m hoping that one day I can return to scan for fun posts (skipping over the offensive ones), and perhaps blog about it again.
Note that my response to Justin was based on the contents of the blog post which he said he would specifically quote from. He asked if I had revised my views on that post, and I said I had not. Note also that my response says nothing about–in fact, does not even mention–the Wu paper. My reaction was short and unequivocal: “I reread the blog post that you want to quote from. There’s nothing there that I would change my mind about.”
I first read Justin’s published NYT article on Friday, August 18. I immediately noticed that the quote he used in the published article, and that he has me reacting to, does not appear in the blog post he asked me to look at. This is the relevant part of the NYT article.
Some economists say they find the discourse on econjobrumors.com to be a breath of fresh air. George Borjas, an economics professor at Harvard, wrote on his blog last summer that he found the forum “refreshing.”
Professor Borjas said: “There’s still hope for mankind when many of the posts written by a bunch of over-educated young social scientists illustrate a throwing off of the shackles of political correctness and reflect mundane concerns that more normal human beings share: prestige, sex, money, landing a job, sex, professional misconduct, gossip, sex. …” In an email sent on Wednesday, after he received a copy of Ms. Wu’s paper, Professor Borjas said his views had not changed.
I quickly sent Justin an email expressing my disappointment. The email goes out at 12:14 pm:
Just got sent your post on EJMR. I had hoped you would have been a bit more honest about what you planned to quote. As you can easily tell, the quote you chose does not appear at all in the “planned to quote from your blog post, https://gborjas.org/2016/07/19/ejmr-is-refreshing/”.
I know that it goes with the territory that you have chosen to travel these days, but it is nonetheless disappointing.
And this email is totally off the record just in case that it somehow raises another opportunity for mischief.
I hear back from Justin a short while later, at 12:35 pm. This is his reply:
My sincerest apologies. I didn’t realize this at all. I had meant to send you the link to both of your blogs, because I was going to quote from both. At the time, I was typing from the front seat of my car, with a load of kids in the back, and it appears that I got distracted, and so the email didn’t include both links.
Making trouble with you was the exact opposite of my intentions. I was reaching out to you, precisely to be as fair as possible. The best evidence I can give of this is that obviously I don’t need to reach out to you quote your blog, but I wanted to make sure that I gave you a chance to make your views as clear as possible.
And even though I didn’t include both links, the rest of the email to you gave you enough context that you knew what issues I was writing about. Indeed, I even told you that I was going to be writing about EJMR, and that I was going to be critical of the forum.
Again, my sincerest apologies. This wasn’t mischief. It was an attempt to do the right thing, compounded by a foolish mistake, from typing a bit hastily.
If you want to talk about it, or if I can give you a call to apologize directly, I’m happy to chat. (I just tried your office number, but it went to voicemail.) My cell is XXX-XXX-XXXX.
Let me summarize: Justin’s article has me reacting to a quote that he, in fact, did not ask me to look at or respond to. My emailed reaction to Justin was based entirely from my rereading of the post that he told me he would quote from. And the point of my reply was that EJMR is a good forum for exposing the cute-o-nomics type of research that far too many economists are so fond of these days, as well as the potential professional misbehavior that motivated my initial post, and that few other such forums exist.
As Justin wrote, his initial email to me contained a “foolish mistake” and he has offered his “sincerest apologies.” I accept those apologies.
And for those who want to know how I really feel about EJMR, my response to Justin pretty much summarizes what I think:
It’s easy to find a ton of posts in EJMR that are offensive…but it’s also easy to find posts like the one about Pokemon or the ones about professional misbehavior that are informative and that information would simply disappear into the ether (or be much harder to uncover) in the absence of that forum.
There is a tradeoff in social media. I don’t know how that conflict should be resolved.
UPDATE, 8/22/17, 7:00 am. Just before this post went online yesterday afternoon, there was one final email exchange between Justin and I, as well as a brief phone conversation. In that exchange, I told Justin that there were two things he could do to set the record straight. First, he should offer his “sincerest apologies” in a public forum. I hear he has a big megaphone in social media, and that would be an ideal place for such an acknowledgement to take place. Second, he should update the NYT article in a way that accurately reflects my response. As of the time of this update, neither of these actions have been taken.
UPDATE #2, 8/22/17, 6:30 PM. The New York Times has changed the text of Justin’s article to correct Justin’s “foolish mistake.” Click here for a discussion of the correction.