July 2017 newsletter – Economics: the Public and the Profession

On 5th May a one-day symposium, hosted by HM Treasury, brought together around two hundred economists from government, academia, business and the media to discuss the particular challenges of communicating a technical subject to the public. This report comes from Alvin Birdi and Ashley Lait of the Economics Network.

‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’ (Robert Capa)

If you aren’t being understood, move closer and talk louder. Good advice does not always translate easily and Diane Coyle reminded us, in the first of two panel discussions on communication and understanding of economics organised by the Economics Network, that economists may need to find another way of engaging the public than speaking the same way more emphatically.

The day was introduced by Sir Dave Ramsden and the first speaker, Paul Johnson of the IFS, noted how economists may speak the same language even though the different voices of academics, policy economists and those in other professional settings may sometimes give a cacophonous impression. Johnson appealed to education to improve the general level of economic literacy so that the language of economics may better resonate within the general public. He lamented the low participation of women within the profession, a problem that may be related to the poor reception of the economic language. The symposium heard later from Marina Della Guista (University of Reading) on how the search for a language that could be understood more widely was also keenly felt in the world of Twitter, with significant linguistic difference between those tweets made by economists as compared to scientists.

Figure 1: Desire to increase understanding of economics related to three issues

During the symposium, a new YouGov survey, run by ING and the Economics Network, was introduced which brought some evidence to support the issues raised by Paul Johnson. Respondents expressed strongly the view that a great understanding of economics would be desirable not just for a better understanding of personal finance but also to enable more informed choices during elections.

Coupled with this desire to learn more about economics was a sense of the subject’s relevance, with 83 per cent of respondents reporting that economics is relevant to every day life. Further, while the survey found that the vast majority have not studied any economics, there is an overwhelming consensus that it should feature in general school education (21 per cent responded that school age children should take a specific economics course, while 55 per cent feel that economics should be embedded in the general curriculum).

Figure 2: Do you think that economics should or should not be taught in schools?

The first panel at the symposium, chaired by Diane Coyle (Enlightenment Economics and University of Manchester) included Denise Osborn (Secretary General of the Royal Economic Society), Tim Harford (Financial Times and best-selling author of Undercover Economist) and Anne Gasteen (Glasgow Caledonian University and former Scottish Economic Society President). Panel members strongly supported the suggestion of including economics in school-age children’s education and Tim Harford made a plea to speak differently about economics, to use a language that sparks and kindles interest in economics by the use of motivating narratives rather than a drier scientific reporting method.

The second panel considered the relationship between economists and the media and included Simon Wren-Lewis (University of Oxford), Kamal Ahmed (BBC Economics Correspondent), Jagjit Chadha (NIESR), Rachel Griffith (IFS) and Nick Macpherson (formerly HM Treasury). The pros and cons of a body such as the Royal Economic Society becoming the voice of economics, by curating and extracting a consensus view to present to the media on critical issues such as the EU Referendum, were discussed and it was ventured that an eventual consensus that is perceived to be wrong may be more damaging to the profession than an initial sense of disagreement. Indeed, the ING-Economics Network survey found that perhaps the discipline had not been effective in communicating the economic consequences of Brexit as only 42 per cent of respondents reported understanding them.

Figure 3: How well, if at all, do you understand the following?

The symposium ended with a plea from Jagjit Chadha for economists from academia and the media to gain employment experience in each other’s domains so that by ‘spending time in each other’s houses’ understanding may be forged. As Robert Capa suggests in the quotation above, closeness to the subject of interest can matter. Unfortunately Capa died pursuing his art by stepping on a landmine; some caution in taking easy lessons from other domains may be appropriate.