Cliometrics Wins


There is no Nobel Prize in History. The only historian who won a Nobel until now won it for Literature, 40 years ago. His name was Winston Churchill. The next Nobel for history is this year's prize in Economic Science. It went to two American economic historians, Douglass C. North and Robert W. Fogel, who are pre-eminent among scholars who have invaded history with statistics, swamped it with quantification, reduced it to measurement, elevated it to precision, introduced spreadsheets, tables, graphs, computers, calculations, numbers, algebra and other esoterica.

Professor Fogel, who earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and teaches at the University of Chicago, has marshaled data to make historians eat their words on the importance of railroads in the 19th century or whether slavery worked. His 1974 book with Stanley L. Engerman, "Time on the Cross," took so much heat for not noticing whether slavery was good or bad that Professor Fogel wrote a second book to make clear that, on the whole, he disapproved of it.

The Nobel Prize is not for conclusions about slavery but the means of getting there, which Professors Fogel and Engerman discussed in their "Prologue: Slavery and the Cliometric Revolution." They said that "a series of rapid advances in economics, statistics and applied mathematics, together with the availability of high-speed computers, put information long locked in obscure archives at the disposal of a new generation of scholars . . . Those engaged in this enterprise are called 'new economic historians,' 'economic historians,' and 'cliometricians.' " It is a manifesto.

Professor North, of the University of Washington in St. Louis, is less of a bomb-thrower and less well known outside academia. Where Professor Fogel forced historians to accept the tools of economics, Professor North forced economists to crank in political, social and legal data to understand why some societies are more productive than others.

It may sound esoteric when comparing Holland and Spain in the 17th centuries, but it has practical applications today. Professor North is in demand as a consultant to formerly Communist regimes. Earlier in his career, as editor of the Journal of Economic History, he advanced the young cliometricians, including Professor Fogel.

The cliometric revolution tyrannized departments of history for a period, but like many fads has mellowed into a permanent contribution. For service in the revolution, Professors Fogel and North earned this prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which hereby lays claim for "Economic Science" to the past as well as the present and future. Numbers are here to stay.

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