First day of the Rotterdam Conference on “Neuroeconomics: Hype or Hope?” I found the meeting hall walking down the Westersingel, right turn twenty minutes from the Rotterdam Central Station, on a breezy Thursday morning. The whitewashed modern room is on the first floor of a Church community center, an otherwise heavy building of old dark wood. The room was well packed and I got stuck on a wooden bench for the whole morning. The first talks went quickly and didn’t hatch to my mind or my notebook. They blended into lists of objections, philosophical, religious, or personal.
The first session of the afternoon was more alarming and arresting. Ariel Rubinstein presented behavioral data drawn from his game theory website. The results of Rubinstein’s large data sets are less interesting than his closing anecdote. After publishing his results in the Economic Journal, he was enlisted by the journal to write a press release. In the text, he played out a conventional tale of behavioural economics that fairness comes out automatically without rational control, and in an ultimatum game reasoning will result in a less fair distribution of endowments. The Guardian liked it and in sight of the collapse of Northern Rock in November 2007, made connections between Gordon Brown’s appeals to calm and public interest and the economists’ findings.
Rubinstein’s punch line was that all this was wrong. It was wrong to be quoted in a Guardian editorial. It was wrong to have economics connect to current events in such sudden fashion. Neuroeconomics was suspect because it was easy to indulge in these excesses.
To me the reason for the sexyness has nothing to do with brains or neuroeconomics (there were no brains in Rubinstein’s paper). Journalists, in media like the Guardian, are writing political narratives, about characters and their feelings and decisions. Journalists are trained in the humanities with no prudishness towards talking morality and justice. Hence, it is holds no mystery or shock when they pick up “soft” economic research, about people’s inner conflicts and irrationality.
What is surprising is how such use can be distressing to some economists. They seem anxious about this attention, when journalists dare to speak in their name, in the name of economics.