Is the New York Times trapped in an economics echo chamber?

Ask a stupid question.

When Justin Wolfers wrote about the dominance of economists in the pages of the New York Times, he concluded, “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” I discussed the evidence for that in this post, which focused on the particular organizational features of the NYT. At the time it didn’t occur to me that his data — relying on uses of “economist” in the paper — would be corrupted by false attributions. So this is a small data story and a larger point.

The small data story comes from a personal reflection by Dionne Searcey, who wrote about work-family conflict in her new post as West Africa Bureau Chief for the NYT. It was a perfectly reasonable piece, except for one thing:

Much has been written about work-life balance, about women getting ahead in their careers and trying to have it all. I often find that if you scratch beneath the surface of many successful working moms, they have husbands who work from home or have flexible schedules and possibly a trust fund. Or in many cases, you find a mom who does more than her fair share at home — or at least feels as if she does. Economists have a name for it, “the second shift.”

Wait, “economists”? The Second Shift is a classic work of sociology by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung first published in 1989 and revised twice. Why “economists”? The (very good) article that Searcey linked to was called, “The Second Shift: Men Do More at Home, but Not as Much as They Think,” written by journalist Claire Cain Miller, focusing principally on the research of several sociologists, led by Jill Yavorsky (a sociology PhD candidate at Ohio State with whom I have collaborated). There are no economists cited or quoted in the story.

The small data story is that this mention of economists will go into Wolfers’ count of the influence of economists in the marketplace of ideas, but it’s a false positive — it’s the influence of sociologists being falsely attributed to economists.

But why would Searcey say “economists”? The answer lies in the organizational culture of the NYT. Here’s why.

Here are my two tweets on the piece:

Considerately, Searcey replied:

How odd. When I pointed out again that the story she linked to was about sociologists talking about the second shift, she didn’t reply.

I recently wrote that economists don’t cite sociologists’ work as much as sociologists cite economists even when the two groups are working on the same questions with obvious implications for both. What about the second shift? A JSTOR search reveals 473 cases of “second shift” and “housework” in journals identified as sociology by the database. The same search in the realm of economics produces just 35 mentions (no fewer than 6 of which were written by sociologists).

So, why did Searcey think she “was referring to how economists talk about the second shift”? My only explanation is that it’s because the piece was published in the NYT section The Upshot. As I wrote in my Contexts post, Upshot

is edited by David Leonhardt, who was an economics columnist before he was promoted to Washington bureau chief in 2011. That promotion was a dramatic move, elevating an economics writer who hadn’t been a Washington political reporter. Upshot is a “data journalism” hub, which often (but not always) implies an economic focus. (On the opinion pages, economist Paul Krugman writes a column twice a week, and Joseph Stiglitz moderated a long series on inequality.) This can’t be the whole story, but in broad strokes it’s fair to say the paper as an organization moved in the direction of business and economics.

Upshot is, of course, where Wolfers was writing in praise of the idea-market power of economists. Is this just the free market of ideas allowing the most persuasive to rise to the top? Searcey’s errors suggests that it is not. Rather, the organizational status of economics has corrupted her perceptions so that if something appears there she simply believes it reflects economics (and no editor notices).

Incidentally David Leonhardt (whom I’ve written about several times) has been promoted to Op-Ed page columnist and associate editorial page editor.

4 Comments

Filed under In the news

4 responses to “Is the New York Times trapped in an economics echo chamber?

  1. Thanks for sticking up for us — and pulling together the data to support the case that we are being erased and/or ignored as a discipline even when our ideas enter the echo chamber. I think it would be great if more of us would get on the journalists’ case and especially for the NYT, demand a correction. They routinely correct even smaller errors, and this is one where the embarrasment of correction might teach a useful lesson.

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  2. Same thing happening in psychology with the rise of behavioural economics http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-grant/why-behavioral-economics_b_5491960.html

    As a bit of background I’m a ‘trained economist’ but actually enjoy reading widely in the social sciences. What I’ve discovered is that for the economics crowd an idea is not valid until it is published in an economic journal, even if it has a long history in another discipline. Then, those authors are given credit for the idea, and because of the privileged position of economists in public policy debates (which is not a good thing in general) they get to take credit for just about everything.

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  3. Pingback: Why I snarked on a 538 blog post (and I’m sorry) | Family Inequality

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