Friday, November 6, 2015

Isn't this what we are supposed to do?

Pseudoerasmus recently posted an analysis of the issues involved in the slave productivity debate. He also sent me a link to an interesting discussion between Edward Baptist and Trevon Logan on Twitter. I had previously noted Logan's review of Baptist's book in the JEH, which should be mandatory reading for anyone starting work in American history, economic or otherwise. I looked at some related tweets and saw that at one point Baptist wondered who his critics were and what motivated them. He seemed bothered by the anonymity of Pseudoerasmus. I've heard that Alexander Hamilton and William Sealy Gosset published some interesting stuff under pseudonyms. Anyone who wants to know more about who I am can click on the link to my CV in the upper right hand corner. I know John Clegg is a historical sociologist at NYU. I don’t know anything more about him. Pseudoerasmus is an anonymous blogger.   I don’t know who he is, and I don’t care. I evaluate what he writes, not who I think he is. I also don’t know anything about Edward Baptist other than what he writes. For all I know he might be a great guy. He may donate to the food bank and volunteer at the homeless shelter. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he does both. I haven’t written about who he is, I’ve written my responses to things he has written.

As for the question of motivation, isn’t this what we are supposed to do? One person makes an argument: they state a claim and try to support it with logic and evidence. Other people respond to it. If they think the argument is wrong they say so and explain their reasoning. In Time on the Cross, Fogel and Engerman stated their theses, their reasoning and their evidence. Many economists and historians pointed out errors in all three. To the best of my knowledge, they did not ask what is motivating these guys; they (and their students) went looking for more evidence. 

When I was at Washington University I worked with Doug North (be the way yesterday was Doug’s birthday). Over a very long career, Doug was wrong more than a few times. For example, the central thesis of Economic Growth of the United States does not seem to have been supported by subsequent research. He once told me that the only real benefit of getting older was that he had learned a lot of things that did not work. Doug always seemed to be much more concerned about what he was going to do than with what he had done. Again, he once told me that his aim was to correct his errors before others did. In our economic history seminars we did not sit around telling each other how wonderful we were. My recollection is that people tried to find every potential flaw. I once asked John Nye if he hadn't been awfully hard on someone (not me). John said, "He's a big boy."

So, I don’t understand this question about the identity of critics or their motivation. It doesn’t matter who I am. It matters what I write. I do it because it’s what I am supposed to do.   Edward Baptist wrote a book related to American economic history. My primary field is American economic history. The book was getting a lot of attention, and I thought it was seriously flawed. I wrote about those flaws.

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