Fabio recently linked to an argument by the economist historian Deirdre McCloskey against using outside letters for tenure decisions. The argument is mostly economic: because there are no incentives for outside professors to be exacting or to say anything negative, the letters convey virtually no information because either the outside person is going to be positive or they will turn down the request. Plus, the most reliable strategy for trying to read through the hagiography in letters of recommendation within a discipline—compare degrees of positiveness in multiple letters written by the same person—is not really available, especially when the tenure case is at the ad hoc level (the level after the person has received a positive vote from their department, where the case is reviewed by a committee of scholars from other departments).
So I was talking to a senior economist recently about the ad hoc process and asked him if his experience was that outside letters were not informative. He said: “Well, I’ve heard more than once that economists are more willing to be negative in their letters than other disciplines.”
A puzzle if it’s true: the economic argument is that you can’t expect someone to be negative in an outside letter because there are no incentives to be negative, and yet it’s the economists who behave least like the economic prediction. Why?
Clue?: My feeling when the economist was telling me this he was saying it with pride.