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Robert Shiller got attacked over nothing

Reading and listening is an art.

Sadly, it’s one that isn’t regularly practiced on the internet. A lot of this has to do with the fact that news stories often get reduced to narratives instead of plain facts. It seems the leading idea is that readers cannot become fully engaged without a story to keep their attention.

When participants on both sides of a debate get fully involved in such conflicting stories, results can become rather silly.

And that’s a pity, because taking in information before you start saying what your particular take on a situation is can for the most part only help you.

One example of this happening occurred just yesterday.

I’d like to call it:

The “Shiller Controversy”

Yesterday, many financial news sites ran a story about Robert J. Shiller, recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economics. The original interview these stories were based on was published in Quartz, but most articles chose to run an abridged version of it.

The bottom line of all of these articles was “Here is a Nobel Prize winning Economist. He says Bitcoin is a good example of a bubble”. The conclusion was left up to the readers, but most articles had a strong “nudge, nudge, told you so” feeling to them.

I doing so, they frankly fed Shiller to the hounds, and did the man a great disservice. Readers who didn’t read the original Quartz article could be excused in thinking “Oh my, here’s another proponent of traditional economy raining on our parade.”

Could be excused, but should not be excused. We’re all adults here, and especially in cryptocurrency circles, being able to form your own opinion based on sources is highly valued. So a bit of more research (by searching and reading the first hand instead of the second hand report) should not have been too much to ask.

Neither can the frequently well-educated readers who gloated be excused. They, too, should know better than to latch onto an authority that happens to confirm what they want confirmed, yet couldn’t themselves.

So, what followed was a torrent of gloating tweets about Bitcoin,

followed of course by strident denunciations of Robert Shiller.

The silly side to all of this is that Shiller is way more nuanced than all of this.

In fact, he never even goes as far as proclaiming Bitcoin is a bubble at all, even though the Quantz reporter tries to steer him in that direction.

He is talking about the Bitcoin story, and how that is a driver for the excitement over it.

It may not be something the more technological oriented proponents are familiar with or even comfortable with, but it definitely is part of its appeal.

But there is more. Shiller was subsequently asked to appear on CNBC Fast Money, where he was cast in the “Bear” role and debated Brian Kelly (cast in the “Bull” role).

It was funny to see, as Shiller very politely refused to be pushed into that role. See for yourself.

This is where I get to the part where the whole narrative of “Shiller the Bad Economist vs. Bitcoin the Unbridled” falls apart.

Shiller can almost be seen to go to bat FOR bubbles, mainly because he doesn’t define them as “things that inevitably go ‘pop'”. He even points out that the Tulip bubble in a sense is still ongoing! That’s 400 years of bubbling!

And that’s what both the gloating and outrage was predicated on: the assumption that everyone talking about bubbles was doing so in the sense that they are bad and that anyone involved in them is an idiot.

Shiller doesn’t talk about them this way. His interest is academic and descriptive, not predictive. In both the interview and the “battle”, he’s careful not to draw conclusions, trying to just describe trends and and identify factors in these trends.

Embrace bad news!

As I already said, it’s a pity that a lot of crypto people are so thin skinned when it comes to their technology. We’re as wrapped up in narratives as anyone. The narrative of the “big bad traditional economist that bashes bitcoin” is a narrative, like it or not.

Blinding ourselves to the fact that thousands of people *are* attracted to cryptocurrencies because of narratives (be it the one Shiller points out, or the one we have identified ourselves multiple times and that never gets old: “Getting $$$$ while sitting on your A$$!!!”) also blinds us to their motives and needs. In turn, that leaves us vulnerable to the shock when we find out loads of these people don’t care one jot for censorship-resistance or anti-fragility, but just want their tokens.

I’ve always spoken out for education, and do so once more.

Checking our sources, trying to read original sources, not blindly trusting stories because they “seem” so true is what’s going to help us. Bearers of bad messages can be sources of knowledge we need or at the very least can use (We have bug bounties. This is the same, just in another category).

In this case, Robert Shiller deserves none of what he got. He didn’t deserve to be pressganged into being a puppet for journalists looking for a story against “those made cryptocurrencies” and he certainly didn’t deserve to be attacked for things he never said.

I wrote this article after the responses that came in after this article in Quartz: Robert Shiller wrote the book on bubbles. He says “the best example right now is bitcoin.”

Bas Wisselink
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Bas Wisselink

Freelance trainer and speaker at Blockchain Workspace
Bas Wisselink is a freelance writer, public speaker and trainer. He is a founder of Blockchain Workspace. His expertise is in education, training and presentation skills.
Bas Wisselink
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