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September 29, 2011

When it comes to writing letters to newspapers, academics are more prolific than most - and understandably so, given their expertise in many of the issues that arise in the news pages.

But despite the long tradition of putting pen to paper, Alan Manning, head of the department of economics at the London School of Economics and director of the Labour Markets Programme at the institution's Centre for Economic Performance, has been exasperated by recent debate about the proposed end to the 50p tax rate on the letters page of the Financial Times.

In a post on the Impact of Social Sciences blog, he says such interventions from academics are "rarely productive" and that economists should always provide "serious evidence" for their declarations.

Professor Manning emphasises that he is not against public debate. "It is important for social scientists to come out of their ivory towers and seek to influence debate about important issues of public policy," he writes.

He also acknowledges that the press is far-reaching and that letters pages can be the ideal place to promote ideas. But he says that the way in which letter-writing has developed tends to skew debate rather than improve it. "There is an incentive to write 'group' letters to the newspapers as they get attention," he writes, citing the case of a recent letter to the FT that was later reported in many other UK newspapers.

"The subsequent letters expressing disagreement were not (reported)," Professor Manning notes.

"If you want to influence policy, there is an incentive for making a pre-emptive strike. And you don't have to worry too much about the content of the letter - the authority is in the signatories to them. This is probably just as well as the list of signatories is often much longer than the body of the letter."

The phenomenon of open letters with long lists of academic signatories will also be familiar to Times Higher Education readers.

Among the targets of letter-writers' ire in recent months was Satoshi Kanazawa, the LSE academic censured for an analysis purporting to show that black women were less attractive than others and David Starkey, whose controversial remarks on the London riots provoked widespread criticism.

While Professor Manning's point that "most of the signatories are probably unknown even to the highly educated readership of the FT" may be less applicable to THE's academic readership, he also makes a more general point about the impression that such letters give to the public.

"Given that the debate often seems to come down to 'my list is longer than your list', it is not surprising that the general public end up with a rather low opinion of economists," he writes. "What starts off as a pre-emptive strike by one side of a policy debate ends up in mutually assured destruction for economists on all sides."

Calling on his peers to engage in "professional self-regulation", he adds: "Almost all contentious policy issues are complex with arguments for and against, rarely with all evidence pointing in one direction. The maximum length of a letter to the FT is not conducive to a nuanced discussion of the issues."

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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