Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

  • Mitchell Gu
  • The not-so-dismal science

    Teasing logic from the glorious mess of human interactions and transactions

    • by Phoebe Cai ’18
    • June 27, 2018
    • Math major Phoebe Cai ’18 plans to enter the economics PhD program at Harvard this fall.

    It’s a Wednesday morning, and my labor economics class is talking about whether increases in the minimum wage reduce employment. Some equations in our notes suggest yes—but if we change the assumptions of the model, the results change. A study from the 1990s supports one hypothesis—but on second glance, we find that the methods are outdated.

    So, you might ask, what’s the answer? Stick around a little longer and you will find, perhaps to your chagrin, that the answer is almost always “It depends.” On the surface, this may not appear to be a valuable intellectual pursuit. In labor economics, as in many of its sister economic subfields, the questions are thorny, the data noisy, and the conclusions often in flux.

    And yet here I am, on the cusp of beginning a PhD in economics, looking forward to joining the legions of researchers who try to tease some logic out of the glorious mess of human interactions and transactions and behavior. The hope is that powerful statistical techniques and insightful theory will be developed in service of this pursuit, that the answers we are able to attain will bring us closer to understanding how policy changes will affect the real world, and how that world—with all its inequality and inefficiencies—came to be the way it is.

    This story is part of the July/August 2018 Issue of the MIT News magazine
    See the rest of the issue
    Subscribe

    For MIT undergraduates, the economics department is something of a hidden gem; many spend years at the Institute before learning that it’s one of the most highly ranked in the country. Some take economics classes to dodge the long essays often required by other HASS courses—and emerge pleasantly surprised at how much they’ve enjoyed themselves. Some stay in the department for just one class or one UROP—and others, like me, find it so compelling that we rethink our majors and maybe even our career plans.

    I made my first tentative forays into economics when I found, after spending my freshman year studying computer science, that I missed my high school history classes. And during one of those forays, in my sophomore fall, it occurred to me for the first time that I might want to be an economist. I can hardly say I understood then what economics was, but I did know that it would allow me to couple the tools I learned in math class with observations from fields like history, psychology, and political science.

    By my junior year, when I began working as a research assistant in the department, I was sold. I worked on a study exploring whether the ideologies of two politicians who sat next to each other in parliament could become more similar as a result. That project applied text analysis techniques I’d seen only in computer science to political data. And the search for an answer seemed increasingly pertinent as I watched the country split into stark red and blue during the 2016 election season.

    If you ask my engineer friends about their research, they will inevitably describe their labs—the walls within which innovation happens. Economists may not use any fancy equipment, but we employ a sophisticated arsenal of statistical tools, mathematical models, and often many lines of code. Economic innovation turns on the ability to ask the right questions—ones that are not too big, not too small, and suitable for the data sets and statistical and experimental tools at hand.

    I spent the summer before my senior year helping answer one such question, about the effects of sleep on cognitive function among poor people in Indian cities. Sometimes, as in this project, the policy implications are clear: a positive result would indicate that interventions targeting behaviors such as sleep could be just as important as those targeting more traditional health outcomes. Other projects, like the study of political ideologies in parliaments, seek primarily to shed light on pressing social phenomena: we know polarization is increasing, but what can be done to combat it? Other examples of intriguing projects include investigations into the underlying causes of gender-based gaps in pay and achievement, studies of discrimination by police officers, and an examination of matching in the markets for adoptive children. What seem like millions of questions beckon to be answered, and every time I visit a professor’s office, I learn about something new I’d like to work on. So I’ve decided to dive in for good, and I hope to make my small contribution toward understanding our world. 

    AI is here.
    Own what happens next at EmTech Digital 2019.

    Register now
    Next in MIT News
    Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
    • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

      See details+

      Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

      The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

      Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

      10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

      Ad-free website experience

    • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

      See details+

      Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

      The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

      See details+

      Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

      The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    /3
    You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.