Saturday, February 7, 2015

excessive formalism

Why on earth does this paper contain a formal model?

I love economic theory and can expound ad nauseum on the many reasons why it is valuable, but I'm having a hard time seeing how any of them apply in this case. The authors' points are more easily stated qualitatively, more easily explained qualitatively, and the formal specification doesn't produce any unexpected consequences or require anything more than intuitive qualitative statements to analyze. In fact I think their own argument could be more convincingly made if they were free to explore more nuanced aspects than will fit into the formalism. So why?

On the one hand I wonder if I'm missing something because the authors are (deservedly) well known and respected. On the other hand, I think John List et al's advocacy of field experimentation has gone beyond the very reasonable assertion that many types of questions are better suited to field tests to the assertion that field tests should be the only approach*. Is this an attempt to seduce others to this view with "math"**?

*I swear I'm not putting words in their mouths. I quote, from the same paper: "Another group feels that natural field experiments are more generalizable, and that in many settings, this benefit outweighs the drawback of having limited control, meaning that we should focus our scholarly energy on natural field experiments." That "meaning that..." clause doesn't follow, sorry...

**I'll remove the quotes when "proofs" contain more than a couple entirely intuitive qualitative statements.

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