The Uses of Statistics

  • Donald N. McCloskey
Part of the Studies in Economic and Social History book series (SESH)


Economic history is of course a counting subject. Sir John Clapham, a British contemporary of Heckscher trained by Alfred Marshall in the economics of the day, remarked in his inaugural lecture for the first Cambridge chair of economic history, that ‘it is the obvious business of an economic historian to be a measurer above other historians’ [1929, 68]. Replete with prices and profits, acres and hands, economic life is the most measurable of human activities. Elsewhere Clapham wrote:

Every economic historian should … have acquired what might be called the statistical sense, the habit of asking in relation to any institution, policy, group or movement the questions: how large? how long? how often? how representative? [1930, 416]

The advice is good for any historian, economic or not. The attempt to produce a number is usually illuminating, even when no number is in the end producible. Counting is a master metaphor. A historian listing the factors causing the American revolution or the English enclosure movement will give more weight to one factor than to another. The very idea of ‘more weight’ is quantitative, and to settle on one factor or a few as ‘more important’ than others is to think quantitatively. Quantities are unavoidable.


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Copyright information

© The Economic History Society 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donald N. McCloskey
    • 1
  1. 1.University of lowaUSA

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