Earlier this week, The Economist came out with a controversial ranking of economists.
It has several problems, some of which the magazine later acknowledged, and some of which it did not.
And the most striking problem, which still wasn’t fixed, is this: a complete lack of women.
“In no particular order, it ignores women; privileges gaffes over real influence; and leaves out the most important economists of all, central-bank governors,” is the mea culpa from the editors, tempered by the statement that, “much of [the criticism] misunderstands how and why [the list] was put together.”
The fact that Janet Yellen didn’t make the list has been a big deal for a lot of people.
According to The Economist, the list excludes central bank governors, but only the top ones who are thought to speak for their entire institutions. That means in practice that Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi are excluded, but William Dudley and Narayana Kocherlakota make it. Yellen didn’t make the list not because she’s not popular enough, but because she’s too popular, according to this system.
That seems weird to me, but I think it actually masks the bigger flaw: the media bias underneath the methodology.
Here’s the methodology of making the list (which was farmed out to a startup called Appinions):
- First The Economist started with a batch of popular economists:
“We gave them a list of the top 450 authors of RePEc’s ranking, and then rounded out that list with a few suggestions of our own — among them popular bloggers such as Tyler Cowen and names such as Jeffrey Sachs who don’t feature in the top echelons of the RePEc list.”
- And here’s how they say Appinions ranked them:
“The Appinions algorithm then tracked these names across the English-language internet, starting this September, capturing instances when they were mentioned and weighting each mention to reflect where it appeared and how many times it was mentioned. It specifically tracked a 90-day period between September 11th and December 11th.”
So the first thing to consider is that The Economist did take into account the fact that some actually mainstream, influential economists might not make the RePEc (stands for “research papers in economics”) ranking.
It seems important that The Economist editors recognised and made an effort to fix some biases in the data. There didn’t seem to be any effort to add women to the list, or consider where the women went. But this is pretty minor compared to the real issue, which is the system itself. This list reflects biases on biases on biases.
But more than that, the media has a gender problem in its sourcing. And that’s what this list is based on.
The Appinions algorithm basically trawls the internet for mentions of economists, and then ranks them. Men get quoted more, men get mentioned more, and men are therefore “more influential.”
For example, remember Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, the duo who wrote the super controversial pro-austerity paper (and book) that largely defined many countries’ fiscal policies in the aftermath of the 2010 euro crisis?
They wrote a hugely influential paper together. They were both implicated in the controversial aftermath of that paper. They are both big name professors at Harvard. Rogoff makes The Economist’s list, but Reinhart doesn’t (despite being the most influential female economist according to RePEc). It’s reasonable to assume they are at least equal in influence. But Rogoff is mentioned in the news almost twice as often.
Maybe it is just this simple: the media is much more likely to quote men than women, regardless of actual influence in their field.
For this particular list, the problem isn’t really The Economist’s, and it’s not really the economics profession’s (though maybe a little).
The problem starts with me. And likely some of you reading this.
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