Getting Your Sources Right

“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”…

…isn’t just the start of one of my favorite songs. It is also excellent advice as regards where one should get one’s information from.

Let’s say you’re interested in economics, and learn, for example, that Bernanke, Diamond and Dybvig have won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Quite naturally, you wish to learn more about the work that they’ve done. How should you go about it?

Maybe Twitter is a good idea? What about the more popular newspapers in your country? Perhaps some news channels? Your econ prof, perhaps?

All excellent ideas, to varying degrees. But the very best place to start, if you ask me, will be the Nobel Prize website itself:

This year’s laureates in the Economic Sciences, Ben Bernanke, Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig, have significantly improved our understanding of the role of banks in the economy, particularly during financial crises. An important finding in their research is why avoiding bank collapses is vital.

It’s always difficult to be sure as an economist, because we do love our jargon so very much. But I honestly do think that these two sentences can be understood by absolutely anybody who is able to read them. What was the Nobel Prize in economics awarded for this year? For helping society improve its understanding of what banks do in an economy. And especially so during crises. Plus, it is critical that we avoid bank collapses.

Well duh, you might think. I could’ve told ’em that myself. And I wouldn’t blame you for thinking so, for it really does sound obvious. But that, as it turns out, is true for quite a few Nobel Prizes that have been awarded in the past. They sound too simple to be worth even an assignment in college, let alone worthy of a Nobel Prize.

Here are three examples, drawn from one of my favorite books on microeconomics, ever:

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume I: Microeconomics, by Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman, pp 60
The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume I: Microeconomics, by Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman, pp 49
The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume I: Microeconomics, by Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman, pp 47

And neither the authors of this excellent book (which you absolutely must read if you have not yet) nor I are saying that the Nobel Prize is awarded for painfully simple ideas. What I’m saying is that it takes rare ol’ skill to take a look at the world around you, ask why it works the way it does, and figure out the answer to this question. More, to come up with ideas to make it a better place. And above all, to then put it as simply as possible, so that the world can both understand your idea, and then go about implementing it, if it chooses to do so. That’s special.

But to come back to the topic at hand, if you want to learn more about what they did, the Nobel Prize website is really the place to start. Once you’re done reading the very brief description, tackle the Popular Science Background write-up. And if you’re a glutton for punishment, slay the Scientific Background dragon next.

Read next the Wikipedia pages of the winners: here, here and here.

Then, and only then, start to take a look at what others have to say. Maybe you’ll agree with them, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll learn a little bit more. Maybe you’ll figure out that their opinions are wrong. Who knows?

But if you form your opinions on the basis of other people’s opinions, you always be playing catch-up. First do the hard work involved in forming your own, and then take it onto the battlefield of ideas, and test it.

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