Friday, May 19, 2017

The two paper solution to the mud moat

Noah Smith has an excellent post, Vast literatures as mud moats. Tyler Cowen has some additional thoughts on the Two Papers rule that Smith proposes.

I don't know why academic literatures are so often referred to as "vast" (the phrase goes back well over a century), but it seems like no matter what topic you talk about, someone is always popping up to inform you that there is a "vast literature" on the topic already. This often serves to shut down debate, because it amounts to a demand that before you talk about something, you need to go read voluminous amounts of what others have already written about it. Since vast literatures take many, many hours to read, this represents a significant demand of time and effort. If the vast literature comprises 40 papers, each of which takes an hour to read, that's one week of full-time work equivalent that people are demanding as a cost of entry just to participate in a debate! So the question is: Is it worth it?
The demand to know the literature is essentially a rhetorical argument designed to preclude non-experts from participating in the argument. Much like the point I was making in Undermining confidence in decision-making is a defensive strategy for "experts".

Smith has some great discussion on the various issues attached to the demand. My only supplement would be that, depending on how it is wielded, the demand to read the literature is both perfectly reasonable and also deliberately exclusionary.

Smith proposes:
My solution to this problem is what I call the Two Paper Rule. If you want me to read the vast literature, cite me two papers that are exemplars and paragons of that literature. Foundational papers, key recent innovations - whatever you like (but no review papers or summaries). Just two. I will read them.

If these two papers are full of mistakes and bad reasoning, I will feel free to skip the rest of the vast literature. Because if that's the best you can do, I've seen enough.

If these two papers contain little or no original work, and merely link to other papers, I will also feel free to skip the rest of the vast literature. Because you could have just referred me to the papers cited, instead of making me go through an extra layer, I will assume your vast literature is likely to be a mud moat.

And if you can't cite two papers that serve as paragons or exemplars of the vast literature, it means that the knowledge contained in that vast literature must be very diffuse and sparse. Which means it has a high likelihood of being a mud moat.

The Two Paper Rule is therefore an effective counter to the mud moat defense. Castle defenders will of course protest "But he only read two papers, and now he thinks he knows everything!". But that protest will ring hollow, because if you can show bystanders why the two exemplar papers are bad, few bystanders will expect you to read further.
Cowen objects and has some good reasons but to my eye they read as defensive pleading of the "expert." I like Smith's problem definition and, in the absence of a better proposition, I like his suggested solution.

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