Garret FitzGerald coined the term celebrity economist. I defined “celebrity” as the ratio of media exposure to peer recognition (here and here), which is really a measure of “excess celebrity”. We are still working on the academic paper to support this. One of the minor findings is that one of my worst PhD alumni returned to his home country to become a media sensation and a cherished policy analyst.
Experts play an important role when democracies make difficult decisions. They help to select the policy options that are considered, and help to shape the public opinion about the desirability of these options. The Irish economy would always have gone through a rough period, but bad advice has made things worse than they could have been.
It is therefore important to recognize who has expertise and who has not. FitzGerald’s contended, rightly, that some of the people whose advice was followed were, in fact, not particularly competent in the area concerned.
For the public at large, it is hard to tell a charlatan from an expert. Indeed, Twitters reveals that the hesitant talk of one of Ireland’s top economists is interpreted by many as a sign of ignorance (whereas in fact he thinks before he says something); while the fluent speech of one of the more frequent commentators is typically seen as a sign of competence (whereas in fact his self-confidence is matched only by his ignorance). Journalists should know better, but rarely take the time to find a real expert — and entertainment value is important too.
And it’s not just expertise that matters, it’s appropriate expertise. I may be the world’s 163rd best economist, but I can only claim expertise in matters energy, environment and climate and certainly not on all details in each sub-field — and I therefore refuse media appearances on banking, pensions, growth, art, termites, cardiovascular disorders, volcanoes, … (examples of actual interview requests) The typical listener to the radio or watcher of the TV assumes that because someone is a professor and speaking on the topic, (s)he must be an expert. If only.
While most economists in Ireland show exemplary behavior in their dealings with public and policy makers, there are a few who seem to think that the quantity of media appearances is more important than the quality. They should reconsider.