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Warning from a Nobel laureate: Place facts above loyalty

Paul Romer, the freshly minted Nobel laureate, isn’t afraid to needle his fellow scientists.

In a 2016 lecture summarized on getAbstract, Romer fretted that his beloved field of economics was being transformed from a “research field,” with a goal of seeking objective truth, to a “belief field,” like politics and religion, in which authorities dictate subordinates’ efforts.

Romer, a professor at New York University, won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics, an award he shared with William D. Nordhaus of Yale. Romer’s work showed that government policy can play a crucial part in encouraging innovation – and in addressing such challenges as global warming.

Romer studied economics at the University of Chicago – but only after he learned to overcome dyslexia. He has joked that he turned a unique voice on the radio to find inspiration, telling himself, “If Neil Young can make a living as a singer, I can make a living as a writer.”

In his 2016 speech titled “The Trouble with Macroeconomics,” Romer urged economists to hold themselves to high levels of scientific inquiry, to place pursuit of the truth above personal loyalty. And amid all the mathematic formulas, literary quotes and academic jargon, Romer made clear he was talking about forces as elemental as peer pressure and as rudimentary as declining to question authority figures.

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“When the person who says something that seems wrong is a revered leader of a group … there is a price associated with open disagreement,” Romer said.

Romer argued that he himself didn’t need to hew to conventional wisdom because he no longer needed to publish in journals to keep his career afloat.

“This price is lower for me because I am no longer an academic,” Romer said. “I care little about whether I ever publish again in leading economics journals or receive any professional honor because neither will be of much help to me in achieving my goals.”

The future Nobel Prize winner closed his bracing talk by accusing other economists of harboring “a disturbing blind spot.”

“The trouble is not so much that macroeconomists say things that are inconsistent with the facts,” Romer said. “The real trouble is that other economists do not care that the macroeconomists do not care about the facts.”

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