Harvard Business Review blogger Justin Fox talks about why economists have become more prominent public intellectuals than historians: He argues that
economists had managed a remarkable balancing act between making the guts of their work totally incomprehensible — and thus forbiddingly impressive — to the outside world while continuing to offer reasonably straightforward conclusions. The basic form of an academic economics paper is a couple of comprehensible paragraphs at the beginning and a couple of comprehensible paragraphs at the end, with a bunch of really-hard-to-follow math or statistical analysis in the middle. An academic history paper, on the other hand, is often an uninterrupted cascade of semi-comprehensible jargon that neither impresses a lay reader nor offers any clear conclusions.
The one economist in the audience had another suggestion. Most economic work was aimed at prediction, and the world is always hungry for predictions. He added that most macroeconomic predictions are worthless (he was a microeconomist), but that doesn't seem to have damped the demand for them.
But seriously, it seems to me that one of the key features of any form of prediction or forecast-- or even something less formal, like scenarios-- should be transparency: if you're asking people to base their actions in the expectations that certain futures are more important to prepare for than others, it's imperative that you be able to explain to yourself and others how you came to think that those futures were worth taking more seriously. It's never possible to clearly describe every step in your thinking: all knowledge work involves a measure of intuition and tacit knowledge that's acquired over years of practice.
There should be no shame in acknowledging that, and I think we have a lot more to gain than to lose from greater transparency. Obviously it opens your work up to criticism, but also to improvement-- and potentially, rapid improvement. It's essential for making users smarter. The most thoughtful clients I've worked with were the ones who best understood what I do. (Knowing how someone else works doesn't make them obsolete: I love to read about tailoring, but that doesn't make me a cutter.) And it's important for any work that people aren't just going to apply, but are expected to adapt and extend-- which is exactly what happens with scenarios and forecasts. Good tinkering and hacking depends on an ability to get under the hood, play with the parts, understand why things are put together this way rather than that, and thus see new possibilities and uses for products. Perhaps scenarios and forecasts should be designed not just to be read, but torn apart, recombined, and reused: they should be able to stand being assembled in new ways and used in contexts their authors never imagined.
[via Ezra Klein]