Political Disclosure

Economists -- contrary to their stereotype -- welcome information about the ideological leanings of those presenting work.

April 6, 2012

Economists are known as scholars who value "scientific," "objective" work. Some have been known from time to time to put down other disciplines for being too ideological or political.

So when a group of scholars polled economists on whether they would appreciate an economist they were reading or listening to disclosing his or her ideological leanings, the scholars expected the economists to say that they really wouldn't, that personal politics were irrelevant. But it turns out that the scholars were wrong, and most economists would like to know the political leanings of their colleagues presenting work.

"The results surprised us," write the scholars in their paper, released Thursday by the Social Science Research Network, and slated for subsequent publication in The Independent Review.

The survey was based on a representative sample of 299 economics faculty members at American colleges and universities who were first asked: “Suppose you are reading or listening to an economist, and he discloses his own ideological proclivities. Which best represents your attitude toward his doing so?" The responses:

  • "I welcome it" -- 63 percent.
  • "I am indifferent" -- 20 percent.
  • "I dislike it" -- 10 percent.
  • "I'm not sure" -- 6 percent

Those who said that they welcomed such disclosure were asked why, and the top answers -- all cited by more than 60 percent of respondents -- were that "ideological self-disclosure alerts the reader to possible author bias," that "ideological self-disclosure helps one understand how the author sees the matter" and that "ideological self-disclosure gives the discourse a more candid and open ethic."

Among the small minority of economists who don't like ideological disclosure, the top reason (cited by 60 percent) was that "Ideological self-disclosure tends to encumber the matter with ideological considerations best kept separate." And 20 percent said that "ideological self-disclosure is irrelevant and hence distracting."

The authors conclude by saying: "[O]ur results suggest that economists are, in fact, more favorable to openness than many might think. Our impression is that most economists would refrain from ideological openness when writing a paper for submission to a professional journal, because such economist would guess that the editor would frown on such openness. If the guess is correct, then our evidence might inform editors that, if they wish to satisfy the preferences of economists at large, they might want to reconsider their posture towards ideological openness."

The authors are Daniel Klein, professor of economics at George Mason University; William L. Davis, professor of economics at the University of Tennessee at Martin; Bob Figgins, professor of economics at the University of Tennessee at Martin; and David Hedengren, a Ph.D. student at George Mason.


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