Modern Veblen: Flight From Data

I read The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen during college and was very impressed. One of the book’s main points is that wealthy people advertise their avoidance of “dirty” work. Long fingernails on women. Obscure and elaborate phrases in academic articles. “The advantage of the accredited locutions lies in their reputability; they are reputable because they are cumbrous and out of date, and therefore argue waste of time and exemption from the use and the need of direct and forcible speech,” wrote Veblen.

A friend of mine does research for an oil company. Several years ago, the oil company he worked for (Company X) was bought by another oil company (Company Y), which merged their research departments. Company X’s research group moved to the research campus of Company Y. Following the move, each Company X researcher was asked to give a talk about his recent work. My friend wrote an abstract for his talk. The seminar coordinator — from Company Y — came into my friend’s office with his abstract and said to him, “Could you deemphasize the parts involving real data? We don’t deal with real data here.”

This was true. The Company Y researchers included many theorists, heavily into abstruse mathematical models. Others were coding new algorithms and relied on model “data” for testing, but not actual data. In contrast, many of Company X’s researchers, including my friend, “got their hands dirty.” After my friend’s talk, several people told him how nice it was to hear about real data.

You can see this tendency everywhere at UC Berkeley, from English to Statistics to Engineering to Psychology. Disciplines that began closely connected with reality and everyday concerns moved farther and farther away. A few days ago someone complained to me about a class where students graded each other’s papers. That’s academia, I said.

Modern Veblen: Theory Testing.

One Reply to “Modern Veblen: Flight From Data”

  1. John Maynard Keynes wrote:

    “Too large a proportion of recent ‘mathematical’ economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.”

    — The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936)

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