Winnie-the-Pooh’s research philosophy

This will sound like I am bragging – and I guess I am – but I follow the research methodology of Winnie-the-Pooh. Here is the excerpt from one of A A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books that I am referring to:

“Hallo, Pooh,” said Rabbit.

“Hallo, Rabbit,” said Pooh dreamily.

“Did you make that song up?”

“Well, I sort of made it up,” said Pooh. “It isn’t Brain,” he went on humbly, “because You Know Why, Rabbit; but it comes to me sometimes.”

“Ah!” said Rabbit, who never let things come to him, but always went and fetched them.”

Mind you, I think it is extremely important that we have researchers who go and fetch things like Rabbit. I have recently been to a very nice presentation about a very good empirical paper. While I don’t completely remember what the paper was about exactly, I do remember that it required a lot of well-informed hard work. The authors needed to acquire two datasets (or maybe more) – I think it was about patents – that they then had to semi-automatically match to each other, as both data sets had some of the same patents (or was it firms?) in it but with different information and what the authors required was one data set with all the information. They could only partially automatize this process (and even writing the required program for that was labor intensive). After that, they had to manually go over thousands of rows in Excel to make corrections. To then identify the appropriate regression model, the authors had to create lots of variables, such as dummies, and interaction terms. As most variables did not exactly measure what they needed, they had to make lots of difficult decisions as to which is the best proxy from their set of variables for each variable they were really interested in. As they then had potential endogeneity problems, they had to consider and weigh arguments in favor of one or another instrumental variable for whatever they were really interested in. They then had to make many other regression modeling choices – I forget what they were – but something like: should it have country or state fixed effects, should it have year fixed effects, should it have a trend, should they take logs, and so on. 

In the end, I came away with two feelings: One, that the authors did the best they could do given the data that was available to them; and two, that it must have been a lot of hard (and uninteresting) work. Mind you, I was also still left somewhat unconvinced about the actual take-away, but this is not what I want to talk about here.

While I applauded the work and I think it could hardly have been done better, it was not a paper that I would say I wished I had done. Well, let me clarify this. There may be people who enjoy running marathons, and those are the people that should certainly run marathons. Many more people, however, would probably have loved to have run a marathon, while not enjoying the actual process of running it. I felt a bit of that, of course. I mean I would be reasonably proud to have written the paper, as it was well done – as well done as it could have been done. But, actually, I probably wouldn’t even have enjoyed having run this marathon, because it is a marathon through mud and dirt and an unclear path, and I would remember all this pain for years to come. So no, I probably would not even have wanted to have written the paper. I do not envy the authors for their achievement. They have worked unpleasantly hard for it.

I much prefer Pooh’s method of letting things come to him instead of going to get them. I am lucky to be (mostly) a game theorist. If you are working empirically, it is hard to let things like the appropriate data just come to you. Nothing much will come, I fear, and you will eventually have to get off your armchair and go and fetch it. But theory, trying to come up with an explanation for something, might come to you in the right circumstances even while you are sitting in your armchair.

Of course, just sitting in your armchair day in and day out will, most likely, not work. To have interesting and novel things come to you, you probably need to immerse yourself in something. You can’t get something out of nothing. You can’t, for instance, come up with something interesting to say about the behavior of monks in monasteries, if you don’t even know that there are such things as monasteries. So, you probably do need to read. Perhaps even empirical work, so that you can learn what there is out there that you could explain. You could also read (or watch) fiction. For instance, that kind of fiction that offers pretty good and realistic depictions of what happens in the world. Having said that, even abstract art can do the same for you as well. Or you could go and observe the world, possibly while doing something pleasant yourself in it. Or a bit of all of the above.

Once you know what it is that you are after, game theory work typically eventually reduces to a math problem. You then often spend many hours or days trying to make some headway with some math problem. That is when Pooh’s statement that “[i]t isn’t Brain” seems quite apt. I often feel quite stupid during those hours and days. But, interestingly, after tackling some math problem for hours or days, and getting a bit frustrated, you might just wake up at 3 am when suddenly a new way of tackling the problem or even a solution presents itself to you. I don’t completely understand how it works, but I believe that without the seemingly pointless hours or days of tackling the problem, nothing would suddenly come to you in the small hours of the morning.

I do believe that you need both kinds of researchers: Rabbits and Poohs. Sometimes, it makes sense to organize a comprehensive and labor-intensive search, such as Rabbit does to try to find “Small”, one of Rabbit’s many “Friends and Relations”. Sometimes it makes sense to think more deeply about a problem and wait (with some perhaps unorthodox and seemingly unrelated work and activities involved) until a solution comes to you.

Having said that, in the case of finding “Small,” Pooh (and not one of the helpers that Rabbit has organized) does so by accident, by falling into the right pit in the ground (in which “Small” was) by following his stomach – he was hungry and went to this place because he thought there was a pot of honey there. I guess this was just luck, wasn’t it?

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