Getting over naïve scientism c. 1950: what Fogel and North got wrong


Fogel and North, both of them old radicals in the 1950s, received the Nobel Memorial Prize in 1993 for their advocacy—and practice—during the 1960s and 1970s of quantitative methods and especially of basic economic thinking in the study of the economic past. Both were scientific giants, and great teachers and advocates. But even giants make mistakes, and in both cases the mistakes became more evident in the decades after they received the glittering prize. Fogel’s late-career studies of health and welfare, though admirably serious examples of applied economics right to the end, were less scientifically pioneering than his work on railways or slavery. North’s much more influential advocacy—and very much less his practice—of neo-institutionalism, by contrast, was probably a scientific error. Fogel realized more and more the salience of ethics in the economy, and even taught (philosophically unsophisticated) courses on business ethics. North drifted further and further from the essentially ethical underpinnings of an innovative economy, speaking of “brain science” rather than the mind-scanning equipment of the humanities, and led his many followers in the drift.

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    Quoted in Niels Bohr: Reflections on Subject and Object (2001) by Paul McEvoy, p. 291. The provenance of the remark is a little hazy, but it is well known. In Danish, the philosopher Hans Siggaard Jensen informs me, it was something like “Fysik er ikke om hvordan verden er, men om hvad vi kan sige om den.”

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    Am Anfang/war das Wort/und das Wort/war bei Gott/Und Gott gab uns das Wort/und wir wohnten/im Wort/Und das Wort ist unser Traum/und der Traum ist unser Leben (Bower 2000).


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Correspondence to Deirdre Nansen McCloskey.

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McCloskey, D.N. Getting over naïve scientism c. 1950: what Fogel and North got wrong. Cliometrica 12, 435–449 (2018).

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  • Robert Fogel
  • Douglass North
  • Cliometrics
  • Science
  • Humanities

JEL Classification

  • B2
  • B3
  • N0