Robert William Fogel Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Economic History: Conversation with Robert William Fogel, 1993 Nobel Laureate in Economics; 11/16/04 by Harry Kreisler

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When one thinks of creativity or of the work of Nobel Laureates, one thinks of that "eureka" moment, where suddenly things are put together. Is that what you've experienced in your career, or is it more the initial choices about directions that you want to go that are really more important? What is the best description of the most exciting moments in your career?

Well, there are a lot of "eureka" moments, but it's not, "Eureka! I found it!" It's "Eureka! It's just the opposite from the way we all thought it would be!"

If you take the slavery [results], some of the most important turning points were discovery by our graduate students that we never dreamed of. They would give us a result and I would say, "That can't be true. You must have done something wrong." I only gradually realized that it was my priors that were wrong; their work was right. So we got started on tracks that we never anticipated. It's very collective. It's a research group, it's not a lonely scholar with the light suddenly coming on. It's collective research. It takes a lot of labor. It takes a lot of different skills. Nobody has all those skills -- programming skills, analytical skills, historical skills, statistical skills. Different people are contributing different kinds of expertise, and they all are a part of the research program. I don't know of anyone who participated in our research groups who at the end of it could say, "Gee, I knew that at the beginning."

How would you characterize the people who do well in the kind of work we're talking about? Are there particular skills or characteristics that are good to have?

Hard work.

Hard work. Patience?

Hard work, patience, willingness to put up with tedium. At the end, something interesting might come out of it. but in order to get to that interesting or surprising thing, there's a lot of tedium you have to overcome.

If students were to watch this interview, how would you advise them to prepare for the future in the kinds of fields that you work in?

Just study the basic disciplines. If you're in economics, get the main foundations of economics, the theoretical, the statistical and the empirical skills that we train Ph.D. economists in. If you're a historian, learn the history of the period very thoroughly. Take advantage of quantitative data that may be available. It's not the only form of data, but it is an important additional form. Everyone uses word processors, so the computer isn't as frightening as it was thirty years ago, when it seemed like some mysterious black box. Many students of history have picked up the skills that you need, let's say, to do a study in demographic history, or of changes in voting behavior in political history, or changes in the standard of living of the lower classes. Those skills are now widely available, and there are many people in history departments who have those skills and can convey it to their students.

I infer from your writings, a small portion of which I've read, that you think writing is also important, clear writing.

Writing is probably the single most important skill, the ability to communicate. That's what writing is. Some fields are so technical that the writing consists of a series of equations that can go on one page, and the only words are we begin with are "lemma one, lemma two, lemma three." All that goes in between it is in Greek, and then at the end you say q.e.d., that's it.

So there are fields of mathematics where you don't have to write well, although many of my friends in mathematics are more skilled in humane discipline than, let's say, social scientists are. So people in the sciences and in mathematics are very broad, humane, and [with] social scientific interests. That, I think, is part of American scientific culture.

One final question: Building on all that you study, where do you think the interesting problems are going to be in this cross between history and economics?

I'm so focused on the economics and biodemography of aging that I'm not a good person to ask that question to, broadly. I do not follow economic history in the way that I once did. I still have a lot of friends and I speak to them, so every few months they bring me up to date on something that's exciting and new. But I can tell you a lot about what's interesting in aging research.

Please do.

The central problem that needs to be answered is, will we be able to constrain the increase in the demand for health care? A related question is, what will the likely pattern of age-specific morbidity and disability rates be over the next several decades?

There is general agreement that for most conditions they're going to become milder, pushed off further in time in terms of onset, but not necessarily in all conditions. There is some evidence that the prevalence of diabetes is increasing, and for younger people there have been some increases in asthma. So within the framework of a general improvement in health, there can be reverses. Indeed, everything can be reversed, because these are not genetic changes, they're environmental changes. So a worsening of the environment for any one of a variety of reasons can cause serious setbacks.

As I said, I'm an optimist. I'm an optimist from early childhood on, and I believe that we're going to get healthier. In the book that I just published, I forecast that life expectancy during the current century will increase by another thirty years. So life expectancy of people who are undergraduates here will end up, the average length of life will end up being close to 100.

Well, on that very positive note, I want to thank you, Professor Fogel, for coming to Berkeley to give the Hitchcock Lectures, and taking the time to be on the show. Thank you very much.

Thank you for inviting me.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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