©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

One More Step: An Agreeable Reply to Whaples

by Deirdre McCloskey
Forthcoming, Historically Speaking, Symposium on Robert Whaples essay "Is Economic History a Neglected Field of Study?"
Late February 2010
1577 words
Filed under editorials

Robert Whaples

I agree with every word of Robert Whaples elegant and well-grounded essay. Robert doesn't say things until he has the goods-and as he says we people from the economic side tend to think of the goods as numbers. It's very true, as he also says, that our numerical habits have repelled the history-historians, especially since they have in turn drifted further into non-quantitative studies of race, class, and gender (it is amusing that the young economic historian Robert quotes gets the holy trinity slightly wrong, substituting "ethnicity," a very old historical interest, for "class," a reasonably new one; it is less amusing that historians believe they can adequately study race, class, and gender without ever using numbers, beyond pages 1, 2, 3).

But it's also true, as is shown by the fierce and ignorant quotations he reports from other economists and economic historians, that quantitative social scientists don't get the point of the humanities. "Whenever I read historians," said a young economic historian to Robert, "my response is: How can you say that without a number? Do you have a number?" Many social scientists, and especially those trained as economists, believe adamantly that, as Lord Kelvin put it in 1883, "when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science. " The young economists nowadays believe this so fervently that rather than deviating ever from their faith they insist on collecting sometimes quite meaningless numbers (such as what is known as "statistical significance," or what they are pleased to call "calibrations" of a hypothetical model unbelievable on its face). The economist Frank Knight of the University of Iowa and then of Chicago in the 1930s was standing outside the Social Science Building, on which is inscribed a version of Kelvin's dictum. Looking up at the inscription he remarked to his companion, "Yes, and when you can measure your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind!"

It is worth remembering that Kelvin was as foolishly arrogant about his physics as many modern economists are about their numbers and models: he said for example that "there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." On the eve of the discovery of radiation he calculated that Darwin must be wrong because the sun could be old enough to have burned that long from merely chemical reactions. Then he declared that "X-rays will prove to be a hoax" and "radio has no future" and then to Niagara Falls Power Company: "Trust you will avoid the gigantic mistake of alternating current." The young economists who laugh at the idea that something might be learned from the study of the past are of the same faith, that we are already in possession of the Truth, and need not engage in intellectual trade with anyone differently endowed. Said one of Robert's faithful, "Why read historians? They do everything backward. They discuss 'supply' and 'demand' without prices, and speak of needs rather than choices." A just God will surely punish such sinners for their pride. The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

Agreeing with Robert, I can only make here a point beyond his purview. It is: that if humanistically inclined historians and numbers-and-math inclined economists are going to work together on their joint projects of discovering how society happens-as economics and history themselves suggests they could profitably do-there needs to come into existence a humanistic science of economics. Notice that the phrase does not give up the world "science." It adds to science the insights to be gained from the humanities. We English speakers should go back to using the word "science" not as "physical and biological inquiries" but in the old and wide sense of "serious and systematic inquiry." That is what it means in every language except the English of the past 150 years: thus in Dutch wetenschap, as in kunstwetenschap ["art science," a recent English impossibility], in German Wissenschaft as in die Geisteswissenschaften [the humanities, literally to a recent English ear a very spooky sounding "spirit sciences"], or in French science as in les sciences humaines [serious and systematic inquiries concerning the human condition, such as studies of literature or philosophy or anthropology, literally "the human sciences," another impossible contradiction in recent English], or plain "science" in English before 1850 or so. Thus Alexander Pope in 1711 in his poetical "Essay on Criticism": "While from the bounded level of our mind/ Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind:/ But more advanced, behold with strange surprise/ New distant scenes of endless science rise!" He did not mean physics and chemistry. John Stuart Mill used the science word in its older sense in all his works. Confining the word to "physical and biological science," sense 5b in the Oxford English Dictionary-which was an accident of English academic politics in the mid-nineteenth century-has tempted recent speakers of English to labor at the pointless task of demarcating one kind of serious and systematic inquiry from another. Above all it has set the "scientists" and the humanists at each other's throats, to the loss of science.

I just finished a book, out in October 2010 from the University of Chicago Press, called Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. It shows in detail why the materialist and anti-humanist version of economics, from Marx's exploitation to Douglass North's institutional incentives, cannot explain what one of Robert's interviewees properly called "the miracle of modern economic development." I found that instead an ethical and rhetorical and ideological and conjective change-just what the unScientific humanists study-made the modern world. If true, the finding would be scientifically important. The Victorian travel writer and skeptic Alexander Kinglake suggested that every church should bear on its front door a large sign, "Important If True." So here. Economic history faces no more important question, whether asked by economists or by historians, than why industrialization and the reduction of mass poverty first started, and especially why it continued. The continuation made us richer and freer and more capable of human achievement than our ancestors. The latest continuation-located most spectacularly in China and India, of all surprising places-shows that the whole world can be so. It shows, in case you doubted it, that Europe was not special in genetics. It shows that in a world of innovation the curse of Malthus lacks force.

The relevance for the war between economists and historians is this: if ideas and ethics and "rhetoric" (that is, democratic persuasion) contributed largely to such a happy result then perhaps we should point our social telescopes also towards ideas and ethics and rhetoric. Looking fixedly at trade or imperialism or demography or unions or property law-very interesting though all of them are-will not do the whole of the scientific job. Ideas are the dark matter of history, ignored for a century or so 1890-1980. In those days we were all historical materialists. Even the historians were (thus in 1913 for example Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the American Constitution), and the economists have never gotten over it. When anyone suggests that ideas such as the Enlightenment might have had a real effect, as the economic historian Joel Mokyr has eloquently argued recently, the economists get angry. You can always tell when you are stepping on someone's ill-considered faith, such as in "statistical" significance or the ideology of materialism, by their fury in reaction.

To be able to detect the dark matter of ideas we will need a new, more idea-oriented economics, which would admit for example that language shapes an economy. For such a humanistic science of economics the methods of the human sciences would become as scientifically relevant as the methods of mathematics and statistics now properly are. Such a widened economic science would scrutinize literary texts and simulate on computers, analyze stories and model maxima, clarify with philosophy and measure with statistics, inquire into the meaning of the sacred and lay out the accounting of the profane. The practitioners of the humanities and the social sciences would stop sneering at each other, and would start reading each other's books and sitting in each other's courses. As their colleagues in the physical and biological sciences so naturally do, they would get down to cooperating for the scientific task. It is not very difficult, as one can see in the education of graduate students. A bright humanist can learn enough mathematics and statistics in a couple of years to follow their uses in economics. A bright economist, with rather more difficulty, can in a couple of years learn enough about rhetoric and close reading to follow their uses in the English Department. What prevents such scientific cooperation is sneering ignorance, not the difficulty of the task.

When that happens we will have a fully scientific economics, which will be able to learn from history, and economists will start again hiring people who are not vague about when the American Civil War began. As long as economics embodies the naïvely anti-humanistic convictions of 1920s logical positivism, as it now certainly does, the historians and the economists are going to be mutually repelled, like the magnets that Kelvin studied. Let us pray for the rise of common sense, against prideful ignorance.