I recently spent two days at an economics workshop. In some ways it felt like visiting a foreign country. For one, the audience doesn’t clap. Especially when the speaker ends with “thank you”, the silence is deafening. I hadn’t realized how instinctual the reaction to applaud had become. Of course, it’s arbitrary whether a community claps or not when one of its members concludes a speech. If a community always claps for every speaker, the signal is meaningless as a gauge of satisfaction, like restaurant patrons tipping 18% regardless of service. In fact, almost surely the speaker is just as grateful to have the attention as the audience is to receive the information. It’s not like a political rally where clapping indicates loyalty. Still, it seems like a nice gesture with near zero cost, so why not? Maybe it’s because computer scientists are generally poor speakers that we like to reassure one another. It reminds me of my first international flight. When we landed, all the passengers cheered — the tradition on international flights at the time and apparently at one time on all flights. It seems that now even international flights do not culminate in a round of applause for the pilot. I find it sad that apparently “don’t clap” is the stable equilibrium.
Second, each session was organized with two presentations followed by a lengthy review given by a “discussant”, usually a senior member of the community. I found the format useful: the discussant highlights the main points of the papers in a different voice, helping to reinforce the message, and provides some of their own opinions and insights. The main drawback is that covering two papers takes a full hour and a half, with almost no time for questions and discussion from the audience.
Luckily, even though some of the rituals were foreign, the language was familiar. It so happens that economists and computer scientists speak a remarkably similar dialect of math. Those of us working on market design are especially close: we inhabit similar circles at meetings, universities, and now industry labs (“mini universities” according to Susan Athey) like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, and even co-author papers. Al Roth may have inadvertently suggested why. He encourages thinking of economics as engineering. Computer “science”, like the design branch of economics, seems less science than an amalgam of math, engineering, and art.