Why economists need to be taught how to speak

Image: Bank of England, CC BY-ND 2.0

“This is the bit with the economicky words in it”, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in his Budget speech last November.

It’s hard to imagine Stephen Hawking or Brian Cox saying, “this is the bit with the sciency words in it”. But the economics profession has a similar responsibility to scientists. As experts, they have a responsibility to convey complex information in an accessible and engaging way to the public, in order for the public to engage with democracy. Social and political issues are often framed in relation to their effect on the economy, and this can decide elections, referenda and policymaking.

While scientists have spokespeople who convey their messages in a palatable way, economists do not. Where are the economics pin-ups?

Economists aren’t famed for their social skills. Research has shown that they don’t communicate particularly well. A recent study of Twitter found that they were the least likely out of any profession to engage in general conversation. Economists aren’t storytellers like scientists are; they speak in cold, hard, technical terms most of the time, and unsurprisingly this can be disengaging for the public.

In a recent poll by Rethinking Economics, it was found that 60% of UK adults cannot define GDP, while 70% do not know what quantitative easing is. A recent OECD survey found that only 38% of the UK public understand inflation.

Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, has argued that the public are less likely to trust a discipline and its spokespeople if they don’t understand the subject. This is reflected in a recent poll, which showed that while 82% of the public trust doctors, and 71% trust scientists, only 25% trust economists. Only 4% of the UK population feel that the information they hear in the news about the economy is “completely reliable and trustworthy”.

The economics campaigns website Economy found that only 12% of the public feel confident in the way that economics is spoken about in the media and by politicians. Meanwhile, economists were the group of ‘experts’ with the single biggest drop in trust in the Brexit referendum, with only 14% of Leave voters stating that they trust economists. Yet at the same time, it is clear that people want to understand economics. Four out of five people acknowledge that economics is relevant to their everyday lives.

This ‘twin deficit’ of a lack of understanding and trust within economics has huge ramifications for policymaking and democracy. If the public don’t trust or understand the economics that is being communicated, they cannot critically engage with the policies that affect their everyday lives.

What is the solution to bridge this gap between the public and experts? The answer must be for the experts to communicate in a better way. For this to happen, the economists of the future – economics students – must be taught this as part of their university curriculum.

The charity Rethinking Economics produces materials for universities to use if they want to change their economics curriculum. With their sister group Economy, who campaign for understandable economics, they are both calling for economics departments to include communications skills as part of their syllabuses, from presenting to public speaking.

This alone isn’t enough to make economics fit for purpose, but it is vital if we are to start rebuilding trust in the profession.

  • Alasdair Macdonald

    I think you have a point here.

    I remember many years ago on the radio just before the news, there was a short report ‘from the stock market, by exchange telegraph’. There then followed a clearly enunciated piece, in which I recognised every single word, but had absolutely no idea of what was actually being communicated.

    It was a private language from which I, and I assume, the vast majority of us were excluded. (Billy Connelly once did a comic sketch on it). And, I assume – cynically, I admit – that it was intentionally incomprehensible. It was to exclude us from understanding what was actually going on.

    When I read economics texts, or articles or listen to verbal reports or lectures, I get the same feeling that I am being deliberately excluded from this subject matter.

    My first degree was in Natural Philosophy (now called Physics) and Mathematics. Both of these disciplines have very specific vocabularies – words mean very precise things, even everyday words, such as ‘work’, have clearly defined meanings, which are understood by all physicists and mathematicians across the world. In my (biased, perhaps) opinion, scientists strive to convey meaning to the wider population. I had a tutor who was a great one for epigrams and one of his was that ‘any subject is capable of being explained rigorously to any person at an appropriate level of maturity’, i.e. you can explain to a toddler some concepts of evolution or gravity or astronomy. Many university science and mathematics faculties now have staff whose job is ‘the public understanding of science’. While I think there are still problems of conveying the meaning of quantum physics – even amongst quantum physicists! – I think that the scientific community has done a very good job.

    I cannot say the same about economics. Now that I am retired and have time to read more slowly and deeply, I am still struggling to get traction on many concepts. Partly, I think this is because so many of the writers are not really aware of what the terms they are using actually mean. They are applying scientific and mathematical language and concepts to things which are pretty much just assumptions, and sometimes, pretty idiosyncratic ones at that. Undoubtedly, there are some economists who have a pretty rigorous understanding, and convey their views pretty well – JK Galbraith was a good example – and I think they also have a clear understanding of how tentative and inferential many of the concepts are. They are really not testable in the way scientific hypotheses or mathematical theorems are.

    So, to be blunt I think there is a lot of waffle and smoke-and-mirrors about much of economic writing and speech. I think many of its proponents are a priesthood/shamans who use mumbo-jumbo to exclude the rest of us.

    Finally, I mentioned JK Galbraith and I think part of his success as a communicator is that he had a wide and deep intellectual hinterland in which he could locate his explanations of economic ideas and it is this which rendered him comprehensible. There is a genre called ‘science fiction’. It is indicative, I think, that there is no genre ‘economic fiction’: it resides in the textbooks on the Economics departments’ library shelves.

  • David Burton

    I don’t think the level of trust was improved any by the likes of Michael Gove saying that we’d all had enough of experts, given that he was particularly talking about the economic forecasts suggesting that Brexit would be damaging to our economy.

    I’m someone who didn’t study economics at school or university, but who has since studied finance and economics through books and online courses. The majority of people are right to think that economics affects them. What’s sad is that a significant proportion realise that the field is important but fail to see how GDP affects them.What they do know is frequently understood just from a single newspaper source, and all tend to have their blind spots. Some Tory-leaning papers tend to focus on fiscal responsibility and paying down the debt, ignoring the many experts indicating that particular forms of (mainly infrastructure) investment get a greater return than their cost and would be beneficial to spend money on even when increasing national debt. Meanwhile, some Labour-leaning papers attack globalisation and business, ignoring where the trade opportunities it creates may be creating jobs, particularly when attacking the financial services industry as ‘fat cats’ without recognising the extent to which the sector props up the government finances. Meanwhile, most of the papers fail to call out failings in tendering which allow government contracts to regularly go to foreign companies as the cheapest option when analysis that included the indirect money returned through increased employment, income tax receipts, lower benefit receipts, etc, would give a fair preference (on a non-discriminatory, purely financial basis) to on-shore suppliers.

    The question is not just how economists can build trust and communicate better, but how our education system should balance its priorities. We leave school having studied a European language that may be completely useless but without having any understanding of how flows of money necessarily affect our lives. We study plate tectonics and rain systems but not our statutory rights and responsibilities. We learn various things we’ll never use again and miss whole areas that almost certainly will impact our lives. Surely that can’t be right.

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