Should-Read: I share some of Carolyn Sissoko's concerns here. IMHO, there is great and enormous value in a "Talmudic" style of intellectual engagement.

But in order for it to work, it requires that:

  • senior members give junior members points for challenging them—even if the challenge ultimately reveals only the junior's ignorance or lack of experience thinking things through.
  • senior members hold to the "democracy of ideas": "that's an interesting idea you have set forward; thank you; let's think about how to find out whether it is right or not..."
    • which entails a willingness to mark their beliefs to market, and ask themselves questions like: "we have taken the residual from a production function and called it our driving independent variable for forty years now; has this been a productive thing to do?"
  • seminar questions typically take one of several forms:
    • a question designed to allow the speaker to repair a hole that has opened in his or her presentation
    • a question designed to demarcate where the argument applies from where the argument does not apply
    • a question designed to allow the speaker to move on to his or her next topic
    • never questions designed to blow up the argument completely, rather than to rescue as much of it as can be rescued.

The problem with macroeconomics, of course, is that people who can run such a properly "Talmudic" seminar are extremely rare. Tobin could. Dornbusch could. Solow can. Fischer is absolutely world class in his ability to do so. But both Stigler and Friedman were so-so. And Lucas and Prescott are awful:

Carolyn Sissoko: On the Value of an “Aggressive” Academic Culture [Updated]: "This morning’s procrastination included a few tweets and blogposts on the 'women in economics' debate, and the twist the discussion is taking concerns me...

...Claudia Sahm writes about ” the toll that our profession’s aggressive, status-obsessed culture can take” and references specific dismissive criticism that is particularly content-free and therefore non-constructive. Matthew Kahn follows up with some ideas about improving mutual respect noting that “researchers are very tough on each other in public seminars (the “Chicago seminar” style).” This is followed up by prominent economists’ tweets about economics’ hyper-aggressiveness and rudeness.

I think it’s important to distinguish between the consequences of “status-obsession,” dismissiveness of women’s work and an “aggressive” seminar-style.

First, a properly run “Chicago-style” seminar requires senior economists who set the right tone. The most harshly criticized economists are senior colleagues and the point is that the resultant debate about the nature of economic knowledge is instructive and constructive for all. Yes, everyone is criticized, but students have been shown many techniques for responding to criticism by the time they are presenting. Crucial is the focus on advancing economic knowledge and an emphasis on argument rather than “status-obsession”.

The simple fact is that “Chicago-style” seminars when they are conducted by “status-obsessed” economists are likely to go catastrophically wrong. One cannot mix a kiss up-kick down culture with a “Chicago-style” seminar. They are like oil and water.

An important point to keep in mind is that a “status-obsessed” academic environment with a more gentle seminar style quickly degenerates into a love-fest for influential academics, whose skills frequently and noticeably degrade. In short, there’s a lot to be said for a tell-it-like-it-is culture, as long as the focus of that culture is on advancing knowledge and not on one-upsmanship.

One of the best descriptions I have heard of the “Chicago-style” seminar is that it’s a contact sport. Getting knocked to the ground is part of the game. You just pick yourself up and pay your opponent back in kind. And then you both head out to the pub afterwards to discuss the game, the sport, and solve the world’s problems.

Will some people be uncomfortable in such an environment? Of course. But some of us are uncomfortable in an environment where aggressively advocating a position is seen as rude or unscholarly. In any environment there will always be some people who are uncomfortable.

Do women tend to feel more uncomfortable than men in such an environment? Maybe. I have my doubts because I’m the kind of woman who’s often asking herself whether I’ve been too assertive, so I feel like I can finally relax when I’m around assertive people. I suspect that it’s patronizing to assume that women are more uncomfortable then men in such an environment — but I may be biased.

In short, “status-obsession” and the acceptability of denigrating behavior towards women and towards junior scholars without adequate patronage may well be a problem for the economics profession, but “Chicago-style” seminars are unlikely to be a major source of the profession’s problems.

Update: I should probably add that I have no direct familiarity at all with “Chicago” seminars, but only with those run by Prescott’s descendants. So maybe what I’m referring to is a “Minnesota-style” seminar. In any event, the rough and tumble of economic discourse seems to me essential to its progress.