In a recent chat with Abhijit Banerjee (enabled by visit days of the university – and not because I have a direct line to Nobel laureates), he remarked to me that “economists aren’t great communicators of economic ideas, and great communicators of economic ideas are not economists”. He also went on to point out that the general public is comfortable talking about complex topics in other areas, such as relativity in physics, despite probably not being familiar with its academic material (I have yet to meet a relative that has even heard of Arrow’s theorem, let alone discuss what a thing of beauty it is).
I think part of the reason for this is a relatively high entry barrier to understanding major economic ideas as a layman. As an engineering undergrad, I felt confident talking about concepts such as existentialism and the trinity despite having next to zero foundational understanding of the respective subjects, and yet I could never talk about any real economics beyond supply and demand. As I’ve become familiar with academic economics, I’ve come to believe that a preference for symbolism and formalism in economic modeling makes it harder for the average reader to convince herself that she understands the subject. An influence of the field of mathematics, which is famously tough for the layman to comment on (even on problems that only needs high school mathematics to appreciate – where are the T-shirts with Diophantine equations and Fermat’s Last Theorem?), is obvious.
I get the allure for insiders of the profession – once you’re familiar with this methodology, you can state your ideas more precisely and communication with other academics becomes easier. I imagine the barrier also ensures that ill-informed voices do not hold sway and misdirect the field. However I believe existing barriers at journals and conferences – those of peer review and dialogue – should be sufficient to ensure that. Also, symbolism and formalism can exist along with attempts to elucidate the ideas digestibly to those both within and without the field. The former does exist to an extent I think – I’ve read a lot of great recent papers that lay out quite accessibly why the problem is interesting and important – but maybe there’s not enough pithy communication to the external world? There probably also isn’t much popular media content in economics that rivals Sagan’s Cosmos or the Emperor of Maladies and so forth.