Justin Wolfers is an Agitator?

Posted on October 13, 2007 by


Last Saturday, in one of his last entries at Marginal Revolution, Justin Wolfers posted the following:

ESPN Magazine lists their list of the Nine Behind-the-Scenes Power Brokers in Sports.  Reprinted in Business Week here.  Includes one rather unexpected name.

Clicking on the link to Business Week (or just looking on page 78 of the October 8 issue of ESPN the Magazine) and you see:


Justin Wolfers

The burgeoning field of sports economics is revealing the dark side of sports. Just ask Justin Wolfers, the University of Pennsylvania economist and provocateur. Before getting his PhD from Harvard in 2001, the 34-year-old prof worked as a bookie’s runner in his native Australia. Now he’s teaching a class in Behavioral Economics and Prediction and Sports Betting Markets at Penn and ruffling plenty of feathers with two recent studies. The first, from 2006, used statistical patterns to purportedly uncover point shaving in Division 1 hoops. The second, published in June, claimed racial bias by NBA refs.

Mark of influence: When The New York Times profiled Wolfer’s study on NBA refs, David Stern trashed it as “a bum rap.” Several prominent economists came to Wolfers’ defense.

Looking at Academic Research

One the one hand, it’s always great to see someone in the field of sports economics be recognized.  But like all competent economists, I have a second hand.  So on the other hand, I am a bit bothered by the use of the words “agitator” and “provocateur.”

This appears to be the process by which this perception is formed.  First people observe that David Stern and others are not happy with the research on NBA referees by Joe Price and Justin Wolfers (not sure why ESPN’s note couldn’t at least mention Justin’s co-author, but that’s another story).  And then people simply leap to the conclusion that Price and Wolfers must have set out to “agitate” and “provoke” David Stern (and others). In other words, people see a reaction and infer that the reaction observed was the objective of the project from the onset. 

To see why this is not an accurate picture of the process you need to understand the nature of academic research. As professors of economics we have a tremendous amount of freedom.  We are asked to do research, but choice of topic is up to us (the only requirement is that what we study has to be published at some point in a peer-reviewed economics journal).  Given this freedom, how do we choose our topics? 

The chief motivation is your personal interest.  Of course, I hear people asking: But aren’t you likely to be interested in something that will provoke a reaction?

Okay, here is the little known secret about academic research.  Almost all of it provokes no reaction from anyone, including other economists.  In other words, if you are looking for a reaction, you are likely to be disappointed.  Given this reality, I am quite skeptical of the notion that Price and Wolfers began their study of NBA referees to provoke David Stern (or anyone else) or “make a name for themselves.” 

Well, let me amend that last statement.  They were seeking to “make a name for themselves” but only with their respective tenure committees.  Both Price and Wolfers are assistant professors trying to secure tenure.  Research that lands in top journals (journals that most economists, again, never read) is necessary to get tenure at their respective schools.  Provoking David Stern or being featured in a magazine is not going to help Price or Wolfers get tenure.

And I would add, such attention is probably counter-productive.  Your colleagues are human beings, and it’s not unheard of to find senior people reacting negatively when a junior professor gets a great deal of attention for their work.  In sum, although I don’t think Wolfers avoids the spotlight, I find it hard to believe he chooses his research projects in terms of what is going to provoke the most reaction from non-economists.

More Research Thoughts

How we choose our topics is not the only aspect of academic research that I think is poorly understood.  I have seen non-academics describe their work on the Internet as being “on the cutting edge” or “proving” this or that.  Given this practice, let me return to something Skip Sauer said earlier in the week at The Sports Economist.

At 3,290 results, the scholarly literature on competitive balance is small relative to, say the literature on the “minimum wage.” But it is a start, and there are some well known results. One tentative conclusion from people who have been thinking about this issue for some time (i.e. most of us), is that while competitive balance is clearly essential in some degree, the payoff function around the optimum may be really flat. The two most successful leagues in the world, the NFL and EPL, have vastly different degrees of balance, suggesting other factors are likely much more important in generating fan interest (there is lots of discussion and speculation in the posts collected here).

Although I already drew attention to this comment a few days ago, I thought I would add to what I said earlier.

It’s important to emphasize the language that Skip employs.  Although sports economists have written many, many, many articles on competitive balance, the one conclusion that “most of us” would agree on is merely “tentative.”  Now one could argue that sports economists are on the “cutting edge” of competitive balance research.  Certainly we talk about it quite a bit.  But we don’t refer to our work in terms of “being on the cutting edge” and “proving” something.

A better picture of research is to think of it as a conversation.  From this perspective, the purpose behind peer reviewed (and by peers, we mean other people with your level of training and expertise in a subject) is to determine whether or not someone is making a legitimate contribution to the conversation. 

Ultimately, the purpose behind this conversation is to improve our understanding of the world.  And over time, as we carefully and methodically go through the evidence, I think our work does advance our understanding of the world. At least, that would be my tentative conclusion.

A Disclaimer

One should note that I was one of the economists to come to Wolfers’ defense back in June.  And although I am not a “prominent economist” it’s true that several big names chimed in on Wolfers’ behalf.  For example, the aforementioned New York Times article (written by Alan Schwarz) quoted Larry Katz (prominent Harvard economist), Ian Ayres (prominent Yale Economist), as well as some “shmuck” (or is it “schmuck”) from Cal-State Bakersfield.

– DJ

Posted in: Sports Econ