Saturday, February 02, 2008

Discovering My Inner Critic of "Discovering Your Inner Economist"

I've been reading Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen, a Christmas present from my brother-in-law. My sister Rachel has also been reading this book, which has been both entertaining and somewhat troubling to the both of us.

Cowan is a witty and engaging author. But at times he makes unwise leaps that reveal his biases and a lack of foresight. Consider the chapter on "Look[ing] Good at Home, on a Date, or While Being Tortured." This chapter is about the art of signaling ("incur[ring] a cost to send a message about ourselves to the outside world"). My sister has already written about some of the ways in which he reveals his biases in this section. It was written almost exclusively from a male point-of-view. Okay, the author is male, but this is a book about discovering your inner economist, not "Discovering Your Inner Economist for Men."

I found his discussion of the options of an innocent person being tortured quite interesting. It underscored the futility of using torture as a means of extracting information from enemies. Basically, there is no way that the innocent person can differentiate himself or herself from a true enemy of his/her captors. The reasoning behind this analysis is a post for another time, but it fits with what I know about game theory and psychology. (Stay tuned for that analysis.)

At the end of the chapter he writes about counter-signaling. The most impressive Japanese business cards, he says, are those that have only the person's name printed on them, with no company or position. The businessperson who has these cards is so impressive that no introduction is necessary (p. 108).

He then admonishes against buying books in which the author's name is followed by the initials "Ph.D." If they have to advertise their degree, it suggests that the author is up to something, such as attempting to dupe the gullible by appeal to authority. To bolster his argument, he discusses a study that showed that the least successful people with a given title are the most likely to advertise that title. Sure enough, professors at less elite universities are more likely refer to themselves in voicemail greetings and course syllabi as "Doctor" or "Professor."

Now, I understand his point, and it is true that this sort of situation occurs (think of Dr. Laura, whose Ph.D. is not in a counseling field!), but there are other reasons to advertise one's advanced degree, reasons even beyond vanity or insecurity. It could be that due to societal biases, professors at more elite universities are more likely to be properly addressed than their counterparts at less elite institutions. They may feel no need to preemptively lead students to the proper form of address, not because they are better people. It could simply be that they are more likely to fit the mold or stereotype of what a professor looks like than their counterparts at less elite institutions do.

I append those three letters to my name on my business card and my professional webpage, not because I am vain or particularly insecure. I, like any other woman in this field, do not fit the mold of what a scientist looks like. I put "Ph.D." at the end of my name because in my experience, the fact that I have one is often forgotten otherwise. I would venture to say that many women (and other underrepresented minorities) do the same.

It's an interesting book, though, and I'll be interested to read through to the end.


Pete said...

It's probably a good idea for anyone who gets offended when being addressed Mr. or Ms. to advertise the PhD.

Perhaps a really really good business card would only have a first name, in helvetica.

Rebecca said...

Personally, the purpose of advertising my degree is to avoid being mistaken for a secretary or a user assistance person.