November 10, 2013

Letter: Models matter

Anastasia Golovashkina’s point about the danger of an over-simplified economics curriculum (“Contextualizing Curriculum” 10/29/13) is well-taken. However, it sounds to me like she is describing the way economics is taught elsewhere: poorly. When I majored in economics at the University of Chicago, the coursework was taught with an eye towards the complexity of the outside world and an understanding that “models”­­­—a word Golovashkina uses as an epithet—are the scientific way to best understand that complexity. A simple map does not imply a simple territory; I’d recommend Jorge Luis Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science” to anyone still confused about the usefulness of a life-sized map.

It’s true that models, like any other description of the world, have to be both coherent and externally valid. Golovashkina spends a great deal of ink on these points but her choice of citation makes me wonder how deeply she has internalized them. The paper she cites in her online version (“Student Attitudes and Knowledge: Change In An Introductory College Economics Course”) uses a before-and-after opt-in survey design among students of a single professor at Georgia Southern University and concludes that introductory economics courses have deleterious effects. This paper has serious problems with both internal and external validity, and anyone who cited it in an economics course would be rightly laughed out of the room. Readers who cannot identify these problems for themselves—and I count at least eight such issues in the paper that Golovashkina cites—should ask any friend majoring in the Social Sciences. Perhaps Golovashkina wrongly identified what she has left to learn as an economics major.

Louis Potok (A.B. '11)