Tyler's Telling Question About My Education Book
By Bryan Caplan
On Monday, Tyler asked me a telling question about my education book: Why do I keep re-interpreting other people’s research to show that it’s consistent with or supportive of signaling, instead of simply doing a new study of my own? Here are my reasons:
1. My comparative advantage is in synthesis, not normal science.
2. On my reading, there’s already more than enough evidence to convince reasonable, open-minded people that signaling is a big deal. Assembling all this evidence into a coherent whole would therefore be a great contribution worth years of my life.
3. Many of the best arguments for signaling simply aren’t publishable in academic journals because they don’t fit the format. Take my argument about the career consequences of failing versus forgetting. Laugh if you must, but I think this blog post is a greater intellectual contribution than 95% of articles in top journals. Why? Because it might actually change the mind of a reasonable, open-minded person on an important topic. Only in a book can I weave a bunch of these arguments together to create a lasting contribution.
4. One more academic paper on signaling would have little value. The best case scenario is that a top journal publishes my paper and people cite it as a curiosity. More realistically, it gets published in a mid-level journal and changes no one’s mind. Not even my own.
If I thought the journal publication process were a good measure of the importance and quality of my scholarship, my forecast about my article’s fate would be a strong sign that I should abandon the project. Of course, by that standard, I might as well have given up on research as soon as I got tenure. My real view, as you’d expect, is that academic journal publication is mostly a socially wasteful signaling game. Hits in top journals are a strong sign of IQ, diligence, and creativity within the narrow confines of disciplinary conformity, but at best a weak sign that you’ve discovered important new truths.
Final point: Tyler is one of my main inspirations for writing books rather the articles. His books are much better than the journal articles he could have written instead. Tyler should take my imitation as the sincerest form of flattery.