In response to:
The True & Tragical History of 'Time on the Cross' from the October 2, 1975 issue
To the Editors:
Thomas L. Haskell’s swipe at the National Science Foundation in an otherwise intelligent and valuable review of the work of Fogel and Engerman and their critics [NYR, October 2] was, I think, both gratuitous and unfair. As he knows, but seemed to forget in the heat of composition, the NSF programs supporting work of this sort derive from a simple series of logically related circumstances which may be briefly stated as follows:
1) a large body of evidence exists in numerical form on American economic and social history (manuscript Census rolls, tax records, business accounts, bills of lading, etc.);
2) these data can yield valuable information on how our economy has grown (rich and efficient or cruel and wasteful, as you wish);
3) their use requires historians to learn statistics and the rudiments of computer science;
4) such training and its use in research are expensive, beyond the ability of the customary sources of finance for historical scholarship;
5) NSF’s support of all this work—not only of Fogel and Engerman and their critics on slavery, but much else, has brought a whole new branch of historical study into existence. As a result we know more about many aspects of our economic history than we did. (See, for example, the compilation by twelve “new” economic historians, American Economic Growth: an Economist’s History of the United States, Harpers, 1972, wherein slavery and Fogel are scarcely mentioned.)
6) Any such research support, especially in its early stages, must be given on a large scale, with allowance for mistakes and even waste—witness the costs of new aircraft development! It is highly unfair for critics to select individual projects as a means of criticizing the support source itself. The discoveries of a science are not purchased one by one off the shelf like groceries, with a price attached to each.
Mr. Haskell in his two reviews [NYR, September 19, 1974; October 2, 1975] has rushed in where an angel feared to tread (see C. Vann Woodward, NYR, May 2, 1974). Whatever one may feel about his success in the role of David to Professor Fogel’s Goliath, one hates to see him aspire to play Samson in the Temple. One may ask him the King’s question of Laertes: “is’t writ in your revenge / That swoopstake you will draw both friend and foe, / Winner and loser?” He may feel that he could have gotten better results than Fogel has, but I doubt that he could have done so more cheaply. Or does he feel it is better if quantitative data are simply ignored?
Senator Proxmire and other congressional critics have the clear duty to scrutinize NSF expenditures just as carefully as they scrutinize those of the Defense Department, or any other government agency. One only hopes that they are not inclined to throw out a vigorous and lusty baby with some rather murky bath water.
William N. Parker
New Haven, Connecticut
Thomas L Haskell replies:
No careful reader of my review could fail to see that its target was neither the National Science Foundation nor the field of cliometrics, but Time on the Cross. In fact, my principal message was that Fogel and Engerman’s cliometric peers were tearing the book apart so vigorously that conventional historians had hardly been able to get in a word edgewise—a reassuring display of professional self-discipline on the part of cliometricians that ought to please the NSF, placate some of that agency’s congressional critics, and put to rest the stereotype of monolithic scientism that many people have come to associate with cliometrics.
My supposed “swipe” at the NSF consists of mentioning that Time on the Cross cost the taxpayers a lot of NSF money. Why should that fact be hidden? It is, by law, public information, available to anyone who cares to look it up. The NSF grant to Fogel and Engerman was essential to my analysis because it showed that the book had indeed been built around the efficiency calculation, the very argument that now appears to be least defensible. Should I have muted my analysis for fear that a politician might read it? I attach great importance to the principle of professional peer review, but that principle does not confer blanket immunity to public criticism. If a defense contractor builds an airplane that cannot fly, he has to expect public criticism, and so should publicly subsidized scholars.
Insofar as cliometric work relies on the use of computers, it is inherently more expensive than conventional scholarship. I agree with Professor Parker that intelligent projects should be supported in spite of their high cost. But the disparity in financial resources between Fogel and Engerman and conventional historians of slavery is too large to attribute to the cost of computer time alone.
Professor Parker glosses over a serious issue by failing to acknowledge that money is a kind of power; that large disparities in funding between different disciplines and different interpretive viewpoints constitute a potentially distorting influence on scholarship. The answer to this problem is not indiscriminate leveling, nor is it a populist crusade against the National Science Foundation. But the problem is real, it deserves the attention of cliometricians as well as others, and it cannot be resolved without candid discussion.
December 11, 1975