Celebrity is not measure of an able economist


OPINION: Media exposure should be linked with expertise – the mouth should not be larger than the brain

IN A recent commentary in this newspaper, Garret FitzGerald warned that we should beware celebrity economists – or rather their ill-founded advice. I agree. Some people regularly appear in the media giving advice on things they know little about. But how does one distinguish between expert and lay advice?

Economists have featured prominently in the Irish media since the start of the depression. On a faithful night in September 2008, the then minister for finance urgently needed advice. Astonishingly, he knocked on David McWilliams’s door.

While McWilliams is a talented publicist with a knack for making tough material accessible to the masses, he is not someone known for his deep understanding of economics. People disagree whether the right decision was made given the knowledge available then. (The decision was surely wrong given what we know now.) Here, the question is why McWilliams?

Experts get into the public eye in a number of ways. Presentations, press releases, press officers and editorials certainly play a role. Journalists and editors, however, tend to approach experts they have worked with before – particularly if the earlier collaboration was a hit. Media attention thus begets media attention. Celebrity reinforces itself. Some people are famous for being famous.

That is fine for entertainment. Experts, on the other hand, provide information and give advice – and wouldn’t it be great if the information was correct and the advice sound? While it is important that someone speaks well, it is more important that he/she says sensible things.

Garret FitzGerald rightly warned that some of the frequent commentators on economics are, actually, not the best economists – and that they sometimes influence political decisions with far-reaching implications. For an outsider, it seems to be very hard to judge who is an expert – and the extent of his/her expertise. Seems, but is not.

The internet has changed everything. Google has a specialist search engine, Google Scholar, that only returns academic material – and orders results by pedigree. There is freeware, like Publish or Perish, that use Google Scholar to assess the publication record of experts – including citations, the accepted measure of academic standing.

Experts who are often cited by their peers are regarded more highly than experts whose work is ignored. While past excellence by no means guarantees current quality, it is a useful indicator.

Google has another specialist search engine, Google News, that only returns media appearances. It is thus possible to define a “celebrity index” as the ratio of the number of citations in the popular literature and the number of citations in the scholarly literature. The idea is simple: media exposure should be commensurate with expertise – the mouth should not be larger than the brain.

The table shows results for 15 economists who are based in Ireland. Their academic credentials range from world class to barely visible. All have had media exposure but there are again large differences. The celebrity index ranges from 27 to almost nil. Clearly, there are some individuals who frequently appear in the media as experts even though their peers would not recognise them as such. There are also individuals who really know their stuff but are rarely asked.

Does this matter? Yes, if public expert advice is taken seriously. (Sometimes, weird professors are invited for entertainment.) Garret FitzGerald was right that there are people who are celebrities first and economists second. We should carefully listen to them when they give advice on how to be famous. For other questions, it would be good if the media becomes more discerning as to who is an expert and who is not.

PS:It is worth noting that in Google Scholar, Garret FitzGerald’s scholarly work has been cited 823 times.

Richard Tol is a professor of economics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is also research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute. He knows about energy and the environment, but not about much else