Saturday, September 9, 2023

History's Replication Crisis


Anton Howes recently asked Does History Have a Replication Crisis?  The question is one that Howes has been concerned with for some time, but the immediate impetus for the essay was the publication of Jenny Bulstrode’s Black metallurgists and the making of the industrial revolution published in the journal History & Technology. Bulstrode claims that,

“Between 1783 and 1784, British financier turned ironmaster, Henry Cort, patented a process of rendering scrap metal into valuable bar iron that has been celebrated as one of the most important innovations in the making of the modern world. Here, the concern is the 76 Black metallurgists in Jamaica, who developed the process for which Cort took credit.”

Howes describes the innovation as a process “to more easily convert scrap iron into new bar or wrought iron — a higher-quality iron that had had various impurities beaten out of it with hammers — by bundling the scrap together, heating it, and then passing it through grooved rollers, rather than the more usual flat ones, stretching and smoothing the sides and edges of the heated metal so that the resulting bars became “perfectly welded at the edges and throughout” and “completely welded at the sides, without a crack, into one mass, perfectly sound to the centre”.” Not surprisingly, the discovery that a famous inventor of an important process had in fact stolen his invention from enslaved people spread quickly.

On NPR you can listen to How Henry Cort stole his iron innovation from Black metallurgists in Jamaica

In the Guardian you can read about how Industrial Revolution iron method ‘was taken from Jamaica by Briton’

At The World you can hear how Historian uncovers the Jamaican metal workers behind Industrial Revolution

At New Scientist you can read about how English industrialist stole iron technique from Black metallurgists

     Howes, however, was skeptical of the claim ( The Cort Case) suggesting that the evidence presented in the paper did not warrant the conclusion that the innovation in question had been developed by enslaved workers and then stolen by Cort. Oliver Jelf (The origin of Henry Cort’s iron-rolling process: assessing the evidence) looked at the sources cited by Bulstrode and concluded that there was a more fundamental problem. The sources simply did not say what Bulstrode claimed they did. For instance,


Jelf did not simply claim that the sources do not support Bulstrode’s argument, he transcribed and presented the sources in the paper, leading Howes to state that “What I simply cannot fathom, now that I’ve read her sources thanks to Jelf’s transcriptions, is how Bulstrode arrived at her narrative at all (Does History Have a Replication Crisis?).”

Ian Leslie (Stories are bad for your intelligence: How Historians (and Others) Make Themselves Stupid) has theory for how Bulstrode came to the narrative. He traces it to problems with stories and  story telling. Leslie says that,

I doubt that Bulstrode set out to deceive. My guess is that she came across a few suggestive fragments in her reading (the ‘cousin’ of Cort travelling from Jamaica to England) and wanted so badly to make them into a story which fitted her ideologically determined prior - that the British stole ideas from those they enslaved - that she got carried away, fabricating causes and effects where none existed.”

He thinks more of the blame should fall on the peer reviewers. Leslie suggests that,

It’s one thing for a young and passionate academic to make mistakes; it’s quite another for a series of experienced academics to let her make them. The paper had two anonymous peer-reviewers (Bulstrode thanks other historians in an endnote, though they may not have read the paper). Even to an ignorant reader like me, the paper just smells funny - it has the aroma of the fantastical. How on earth did these experts read it without becoming suspicious? Why didn’t they double-check its remarkable claims?

I can’t agree with Leslie’s argument. I don’t think that stories or peer-reviewers are the fundamental problem here. 

We need to tell stories. Often the answer to “Why did this happen?” is a sequence of events, a story about how it came to happen. Nor can the blame for misleadingly citing sources be pushed on to the referees. Although I am an economist, I have probably written more referee reports for books and papers written by historians than economists. I will note it in my report if I think an author incorrectly uses a source that I am familiar with.  But I can’t check every citation. I can’t even check the citations to crucial claims if it requires a trip to the archive. Experts in the field should be familiar with important secondary sources, but you can’t know every primary source. You certainly can’t run off to check on every novel primary sources that someone has discovered. You have to be able to trust the author to honestly report what is in the sources that that they cite.

Leslie’s concern about the siren song of stories makes him overly generous with Bulstrode. A professional historian should not get carried away with enthusiasm to the point that they try to support claims with references to sources that do not actually provide any support for those claims. Actually, amateur historians and undergraduate students shouldn't do that either. Historians must tell stories, but they must tell stories that are constrained by the sources. If you do not want your story telling to be constrained by the historical evidence you should be forthcoming and admit that your genre is historical fiction, not history.

I have frequently said that I think honesty is the most important trait for a historian. In economics and other quantitative social sciences I can say “Send me your data.” Many journals require making the data available. But a historian might cite documents that I would have to travel to multiple cities, states, or even countries to access. To be of any use to me I need to be able to trust that you have honestly represented the sources that you cite. Once you have lost my trust you are worthless to me as a historian. Even if I can point to things that you got right, I can’t be sure about anything that I don’t already know. I can’t learn anything from you.

Anton Howes suggests making history more like quantitative social sciences. Try to make copies of relevant sources available. Now that so many people have digital images of the primary sources they use this is at least imaginable. Still, it is not a panacea, as demonstrated by recent revelations on honesty research (see Nevertheless, to the extent that it can be done, it would be great, both for the credibility of current research as well as a resource for future research.

But there should also be repercussions. Sadly, I doubt that there will be. Anton Howes notes other historical myths that seem immune to revision in response to evidence. I and others have written a great deal about one historian who in an influential book did not honestly represent what was in primary or secondary sources, going well beyond honest mistakes driven by youthful enthusiasm. As best I can tell there were absolutely no repercussions for him. Other historians still cite the book and praise the author. 

I hope that I am wrong; I hope that many historians read Howes' Does History Have a Replication Crisis? and take the question seriously.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Some thoughts on a liberal arts education


I recently listened to an episode of the Podcast Word on Fire in which Bishop Robert Barron and Brandon Vogt discussed Why Liberal Arts Matter. Although I agreed with their conclusions regarding the need to support the humanities, I disagreed with their overall interpretation of a liberal arts education.

Bishop Barron defines liberal arts by going back to the root of the word liberal in the Latin word liber, which means free. He argues that in the context of  liberal arts, free refers to disciplines that are free from utility. He provides as examples of liberal arts English and Philosophy, which he claims do not have practical utility, but are higher sciences because they are simply good in themselves. Vogt notes that the liberal arts are “sometimes called the humanities.” I think the notion that the liberal arts and the humanities are synonymous is actually fairly common. Leaving aside the claim that the humanities do not have utility, I don’t think that making liberal arts and humanities synonymous is supported by the traditional use of the term liberal arts, and I do not think it is a useful definition for the present.

The traditional understanding of the liberal arts was that it referred to the education appropriate to a free person, a person who was fully eligible to participate in society.  One traditional view held that there were seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, astronomy, arithmetic, geometry, and music.  These clearly do not coincide with what we now regard as the humanities. They suggest, instead, that a free person needed a broad set of skills and knowledge, including critical thinking, clarity of expression, and an understanding of the world they lived in.

Barron’s view suggests that there are disciplines that are liberal arts and disciplines that are not. You could, for instance, obtain a liberal arts education by studying only English, or only Philosophy, or somewhat more broadly, only the Humanities. If on the other hand, if you think of a liberal arts education as an education that prepares someone to fully participate in society, studying only the Humanities would not qualify as a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education in terms of the original definition, the education appropriate to a free person, refers to the totality of the education rather than specific disciplines. It requires an education that promotes critical thinking, clarity of expression and breadth of knowledge associated with the original conception of a liberal arts education. An education only in the humanities will not achieve this goal.

Things have changed since the Classical World in which the idea of a liberal education was developed. In general, we no longer think of free people as a subcategory of the population. But it is still reasonable to ask what sort of education will prepare people to fully participate in society. Students do need to study the humanities, but they also need to study the social and natural sciences, and mathematics. The sort of disciplines that Barron would contrast with the liberal arts, such as engineering, computer science, and business are subjects that people increasingly need some knowledge of to be informed citizens. One could even argue that education that leads directly to an income is now an essential part of a liberal arts education. Unlike the past a free person is less likely to able to depend upon their inherited wealth and status for their livelihood.

In other words, I don’t think it is particularly productive to divide disciplines into those that are liberal arts and those that are not. Instead, we should think of a liberal arts education as one that includes numerous disciplines, giving students a wide array of skills and the breadth of knowledge to live successful and fulfilling lives and make valuable contributions to society.


Thursday, July 6, 2023

Some Economic History of Media and the Spread of Hate


Tianyi Wang, “Media, Pulpit, and Populist Persuasion: Evidence from Father Coughlin”

American Economic Review VOL. 111, NO. 9, SEPTEMBER 2021 (pp. 3064-92)

Or listen to

Demagoguery on the Airwaves with Tianyi Wang at the AEA Research Highlights Podcast.


Desmond Ang, “The Birth of a Nation: Media and Racial Hate,” American Economic Review VOL. 113, NO. 6, JUNE 2023 ungated version

(pp. 1424-60)


Or listen to 

Tracing the Impact of Early Popular Media on Racial Hate in the U.S. with Desmond Ang

At the Econofact Chat Podcast.


Elena Esposito, Tiziano Rotesi, Alessandro Saia, Mathias Thoenig. “Reconciliation Narratives: The Birth of a Nation after the US Civil War,” American Economic Review VOL. 113, NO. 6, JUNE 2023 (pp. 1461-1504) ungated version

I don't know of a podcast to go with this one yet

Monday, June 26, 2023

A Couple of Podcasts I've Been Listening To

The best news in podcasting is that my favorite podcast, The Economic History Podcast , is back after more than a year. In a new episode, Sean Kenny talks to Peter Lindert about Making Social Spending Work. 

I have also been listening to Promises, Promises with Tess Wilkerson-Ryan and Dave Hoffman. Promises, Promises is about contract law and in each episode they discuss a particular case. I believe they did the podcast for their law students during lockdown, and they always address what a student should take a way from the case in terms of answering law school exam questions. Although it is directed toward law school students I think the cases should be of interest to anyone who wants to understand how market economies actually work. Moreover, they have so much fun discussing the cases I almost wish I had gone to law school. 

Friday, April 28, 2023

The Economics Major as the Path to Law School

 One of the things that Gary Hoover talked to Kennedy Owen about in in this video was the things that an economics major prepares students for. He mentioned that many of his students have gone on to law school and noted that Econ was the major that tended to do the best on the LSAT.

This is from the Law School Admissions Council. 

You can see that Economics majors have the highest mean and median LSAT scores as well as one of the highest admission rates.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

More Time to Speak Econ

Kennedy Owen produces interviews at a pretty rapid pace. She has posted several new ones since I blogged about Time to Speak Econ a few days ago, including this one with Gary Hoover.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Time to Speak on Econ

 I received an email yesterday from Kennedy Owen, who is currently a junior in high school, telling me about Time to Speak on Econ a series of interviews she has done with economists. I checked them out and noticed there was one with the economic historian Josh Rosenbloom. I listened to the interview with Rosenbloom and then a couple of others. I like them. She asks questions about the education and careers of each person from the perspective of a young person who is considering studying economics in college. She has one of my favorite qualities in an interviewer: she asks relatively broad questions and then just lets the interviewee talk. 

I hope other people find them useful and enjoyable.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Recent NBER Meetings


Yes, NBER charges for downloads of working papers, but you can watch some recent meetings for free. By the way, it has also been my experience that you can usually find ungated versions of most NBER working papers if you look around.


I think both the Race and Stratification Economics and the Development of the American Economy meetings should be of interest to readers of this blog.


The final presentation at the Race and Stratification meeting is University of Mary Washington economics alum Lavar Edmonds, who is currently working on a Ph.D. in economics at Stanford, presenting his research on the impact of HBCU trained teachers.


I also liked that the Race and Stratification meeting about how one could incorporate race and stratification economics into introductory economics courses.


NBER Race and Stratification Working Group on YouTube


Caste-based and Racial Wealth Inequality in India and the United States

Ishan Anand, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi



Ellora Derenoncourt, Princeton University and NBER

Ashwini Deshpande, Ashoka University


Perceptions of Racial Gaps, their Causes, and Ways to Reduce Them

Matteo F. Ferroni, Boston University

Stefanie Stantcheva, Harvard University and NBER



Michael Kraus, Yale University

Candis Watts Smith, Duke University


Unequal Gradients: Sex, Skin Tone, and Intergenerational Economic Mobility

Luis A. Monroy-Gómez-Franco, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Roberto Vélez-Grajales, Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias

Gastón Yalonetzky, Leeds University



Art Goldsmith, Washington and Lee University

Chantal Smith, Washington and Lee University


Teaching Discrimination in Introductory Economics: An Approach Incorporating Stratification Economics

Jorgen M. Harris, Occidental College

Mary Lopez, Occidental College


Complementary Investments Over the Life Course and the Black-White Earnings Gap

Sonia R. Bhalotra, University of Warwick

Damian Clarke, Universidad de Chile

Atheendar Venkataramani, University of Pennsylvania and NBER


Estimating Disenfranchisement in U.S. Elections, 1870-1970

Jeffery A. Jenkins, University of Southern California

Thomas R. Gray, University of Texas at Dallas


The Determinants and Impacts of Historical Treaty-Making in Canada

Donn. L. Feir, University of Victoria

Rob Gillezeau, University of Toronto

Maggie E.C. Jones, Emory University and NBER


A Simple Model of Group Conflict, Inequality and Stratification

Daniele Tavani, Colorado State University

Brendan Brundage, Colorado State University



Pablo Beramendi, Duke University

Patrick L. Mason, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Racial Disparities in the Tax Treatment of Marriage

Janet Holtzblatt, Tax Policy Center

Swati Joshi, Brookings Institution

Nora R. Cahill, Brookings Institution

William Gale, Brookings Institution


Not so Black and White: Uncovering Racial Bias from Systematically Misreported Trooper Reports

Elizabeth Luh, University of Michigan


Economic Inequality and Stratification after a Natural Disaster

Anita Alves Pena, Colorado State University


Role Models Revisited: HBCUs, Same-Race Teacher Effects, and Black Student Achievement

Lavar C. Edmonds, Stanford University


Michael Gottfried, University of Pennsylvania

Karolyn Tyson, Georgetown University



NBER Development of the American Economy Program meeting on YouTube


A Penny for Your Thoughts

Walker Hanlon, Northwestern University and NBER

Stephan Heblich, University of Toronto and NBER

Ferdinando Monte, Georgetown University and NBER

Martin B. Schmitz, Vanderbilt University


Legal Activism, State Policy, and Racial Inequality in Teacher Salaries and Educational Attainment in the Mid-Century American South

Elizabeth U. Cascio, Dartmouth College and NBER

Ethan G. Lewis, Dartmouth College and NBER

This paper was distributed as Working Paper 30631, where an updated version may be available.


US Educational Mobility in the Early Twentieth Century

Martha J. Bailey, University of California, Los Angeles and NBER

Abdul Raheem Shariq Mohammed, Northeastern University

Paul Mohnen, University of Pennsylvania


The Value of Ratings: Evidence from their Introduction in Securities Markets

Asaf Bernstein, University of Colorado at Boulder and NBER

Carola Frydman, Northwestern University and NBER

Eric Hilt, Wellesley College and NBER

This paper was distributed as Working Paper 31064, where an updated version may be available.


Germ Theory at Home: The Role of Private Action in Reducing Child Mortality during the Epidemiological Transition

James J. Feigenbaum, Boston University and NBER

Lauren Hoehn-Velasco, Georgia State University

Sophie Li, Boston University


“Muddling Through or Tunnelling Through?”: UK Monetary and Fiscal Exceptionalism during the Great Inflation

Michael D. Bordo, Rutgers University and NBER

Oliver Bush, Bank of England

Ryland Thomas, Bank of England

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Economic History in The American Historical Review


Everyday Economic Justice: Mediating Small Claims in Mexico City, 1813–1863

Louise E. Walker


This article examines economic justice in nineteenth-century Mexico City through analysis of small-claims conflicts—juicios verbales. After the promulgation of the 1812 Cádiz Constitution, this centuries-old tradition of judicial arbitration was shaped by liberal constitutionalism. A new class of officials, the alcaldes constitucionales, were elected by residents to decide cases. Cádiz liberalism inaugurated a new world. What happened when people faced a classic problem, when they did not pay their debts? Microeconomic history—the quantitative and qualitative study of the economic relationships, decisions, and actions of individuals, households, and small enterprises—exposes the workings of economic justice. From 1813 to 1863, tens of thousands of residents pressed their claims before magistrates. As this article shows, justice grounded in Cádiz liberalism was relatively effective for ordinary people and evinced a gender fairness. These small-claims conflicts might seem a petty world of negligible amounts and narrow-minded disputes, but analyzed together, they challenge conventional interpretations about institutional deficiency and historical underdevelopment. Cádiz liberalism established a judicial institution to protect property rights, especially for creditors, that enjoyed broad legitimacy.


When Hay Was King: Energy History and Economic Nationalism in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Ariel Ron

Hay was a linchpin of the early industrial energy regime. It was the primary fodder for working horses, who became more rather than less important over the 1800s. Though largely ignored by historians, hay was of comparable value to cotton and wheat in the nineteenth-century United States. The crop’s historiographical invisibility is partly due to its relatively informal and decidedly subglobal production and exchange patterns. Whereas cotton and wheat exports passed through customhouses and institutionalized exchanges that carefully recorded trade volumes, hay was almost never exported and often underwent no market transaction at all, instead being used as an intermediate good on farms. Only when the US federal government added a detailed agricultural census in 1850 did the magnitude and importance of hay production become publicly legible. At that point, hay was drafted into a wide-ranging debate about economic development between Northern antislavery nationalists and Southern proslavery free traders, with “King Hay” emerging as a foil for “King Cotton.” King Hay thus urges historians to pay more attention to the trade patterns, developmental policies, and economic ideologies that generated distinctly national, as opposed to global, economic spaces within nineteenth-century capitalism.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Economics and History

 I have argued numerous times that the differences between economic and history tend to be exagerated, usually by economists who want to criticize history or historians who want to criticize economics. So, I really liked this paper by Sheilagh Ogilvie that reviews research on serfdom by both historians and economists and makes the case that the differences are exagerated and that the diferences that do exist make the fields complements, not substitues.

Economics and History: Analyzing Serfdom

Economics and history are often regarded as antithetical. This paper argues the opposite. It builds its case by showing how economics and history provide complementary approaches to analyzing a fundamental historical institution: serfdom. The paper scrutinizes three questions: how serfdom shaped peasant choices, how it constrained those choices, and how it affected entire societies. By working together, economics and history have generated better answers to these questions than either discipline could have achieved in isolation. Economic and historical approaches, the paper concludes, are not substitutes but complements.