Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Academic classifications...

Erdös's vocabulary for people is famous:
  • Epsilon: a child
  • Joe/Sam: Soviet Union/USA
  • Bosses/Slaves: Wives/Husbands
  • Dead: Stopped doing math
and so on...

A funny description of economists (via this comment on

Rudi [Dornbusch] was a very funny, colorful speaker of English, with a gift for offbeat but perfect turns of phrase. He had a classification system for economists, depending on their research style. "Goldsmiths" were careful, meticulous workers - which Rudi admired. "Pigs" just sort of jumped into an issue and wallowed around. But that was OK too, if it was done with sufficient vigor and originality. Rudi described Larry Summers as a "fearful pig" - and it was a compliment.

On the other hand, "plumbers" were economists who devised intricate contraptions with no clear purpose. I won't tell you who he described as "dreadful plumbers", but he was right.

Some other interesting modes of academic research:
  • craftsman: worked alone, or with one or two colleagues, to carefully write papers and books.
  • bureaucrat: have grants, research assistants and a large network of co-authors. This kind of scholar is more like an architect - he designs the overall project, but an army of helpers puts together the final project.
  • recycler: academics who come up with one big theoretical idea, and then try to use that idea to explain every possible phenomenon under the sun.
  • importer: academic who engages in intellectual arbitrage. They develop an expertise outside their disciplinary boundaries, and then import the ideas, paradigms, and analytical tools culled from these outside areas to explain phenomenon within their discipline.
  • theocrat: This academic develops (possibly through a "Bureaucrat" research process) a belief system which then not only infuses everything he, but also causes him to dismiss the work of others. Those other academics, he argues, are wrong and (1) need to study his work more; (2) haven't studied enough to realize he's right; and/or (3) have attempted to replicate his work but aren't skilled enough to do so.
  • compiler: the academic whose most important contribution is to assemble a textbook, which puts his field all in one place at the fingertips of his colleagues. Often this involves taking dense academic research done by others, and making it tractable. 15 editions later, he is universally cited as one of the Greats of his time.
And my own contribution:
  • hoarder: has access to some key piece of data/equipment/resource that is hard-to-impossible to recreate, and exchanges access to it for authorship on papers.
I should add that not all of these are pejorative labels. Recycling and importing can be very fruitful research modes, just to name a few.

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