catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Why do academics sign open letters?

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In writing about an open letter from 500 economists and other scholars he signed to George W. Bush favouring a liberal immigration policy Andrew Leigh admits that:

I’m not quite sure how persuaded GWB will be by non-US citizens signing a letter that calls for maintaining a liberal immigration policy.

But would GWB be any more persuaded by US citizens? Are there any examples of letters signed by academic worthies persuading a political leader, or even having any observable effect on the course of a debate? Examples suggesting that they have no influence are rather easier to find. Australian academics, for example, don’t seem to have affected John Howard’s Iraq policy. And if GWB is persuaded by open letters, what if he is convinced by this contrary one?

The theory behind the academic open letter is presumably that academics can bring expertise to a debate. And certainly this particular academic letter is considerably better than most in offering a list of references to substantiate its position. But often many of the signatories have no special expertise on the subject of the letter, or at least none that is documented for readers (how many immigration economists could there be?). So intellectually what are their names adding to those who actually are expert? Wouldn’t 500 references be more persuasive than 500 economists?

Curiously, the organiser of this open letter, Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok, is declaring it a “big success” before the political issue has been resolved either way, and despite it seemingly scoring only modest media reporting.

This seems to suggest that his criteria for “success” is something other than its ostensible political purpose. It suggests, as I have argued before (here and here), that nominally political activity is not necessarily directed primarily at the political process.
Signing the letter could be therapeutic (people feel they should do something, however tokenistic) or perhaps signers are flattered that someone thought that their name would add weight to the letter or pleased to be in the company of several winners of the Nobel Prize (and Alex may well be happy that they took his idea seriously). Perhaps his signers just wanted to avoid the social disapproval flowing from refusing to sign.

But surely there are also dangers in signing if you are not an expert. It’s a bit like the perils of academic blogging. Though perhaps the presence of genuine experts among the signatories is a kind of peer review protection, putting your name to an open letter that you may not agree with in future is a potential source of intellectual regret.

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Written by Admin

June 21, 2006 at 9:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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