What Happens When Statistics Get Wet?

Christopher Magra

Pirate Ching Shih (1775-1844), from History of Pirates of All Nations (1836).

In 1985, John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard stated their belief that cliometrics, or quantitative analysis, was going to be the future of historical scholarship.1 Over the past forty years, statistics on imports and exports, commodity prices, and income levels have added rigor and mortis to our understanding of the past.

Stats reveal the timing of large-scale historical processes such as the rise of capitalism. They can inform our thinking about the extent to which slavery mattered in a given society. But they also make students’ eyes close in the classroom.

Is there a way to make statistics more palatable, and therefore more useful, to students in the humanities? How can we more effectively teach statistical analysis? I gave this some thought when I started teaching in 2006. My first tenure-track position was an endowed chair in economic history at the California State University in Northridge. Go Matadors!

I specifically wanted to use statistics to teach undergraduate history majors. I believed then (and still do) that mathematics can be a powerful instrument in the historian’s tool belt. I also believe other disciplines in the humanities or social sciences can make use of statistics in the classroom.

I throw water on statistics to make them more digestible. I use tables, graphs, charts, and figures in my history of piracy course to compare and contrast maritime social banditry in different parts of the world. For example, according to Robert Antony, there were more pirates in Chinese waters than anywhere else on Earth. At the height of piracy in the Atlantic Ocean around 1700, there were 5,500 pirates in the region. Antony contrasts these figures to the 70,000 pirates that operated off the coast of China in the Pacific Ocean around 1800.2 Students’ eyes start to glaze over when I unpack these statistics and compare and contrast population figures and living standards. But they never shut completely.

I also include unconventional maritime topics in my course on the history of economic development in the Atlantic World (no, that is not the course title!). We cover standard explanations for the rise and fall of economies such as demographic shifts and boom-and-bust cycles in the production of staples. We discuss traditional agricultural staples such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco. Students love learning about the history of these commodities, but they hate studying import and export tables. Semester after semester, they digest statistical analysis better with a spoonful of sea salt. They perk up when we move from statistics on sugar exports to tables on shipping.

Charles John De Lacy, Mist in Port, London (1881). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

James F. Shepherd and Gary M. Walton’s classic work on shipping and economic development is now nearly fifty years old, and it is chock-full of old-fashioned quantitative methods.3 It is not a book most educators reach for to prepare a lesson plan. Yet, students’ curiosity is piqued when you ask them how can you make it cheaper to ship goods overseas. Shepherd and Walton provided statistics on shipping costs, tonnage ranges, crew sizes, wage rates, and maritime insurance fees to explain how shipping companies became more cost-effective at bringing trade goods across oceans over time. Spoiler—technological advances played little part in this process. A reduction in piracy caused insurance rates to drop by some 10–20 percent over the course of the eighteenth century, which enabled shipping companies to lower freight rates.

The very reason most educators do not teach maritime history is the explanation for students’ attraction to maritime topics. These topics appear to be different, strange, and exotic. Mariners and ships are similar to astronauts and rockets. Few students have had direct contact with these things, in or out of the classroom.

I teach students at the University of Tennessee who have never seen the ocean. They have never stood on the docks and watched deep-sea trawlers leaving early in the morning. And I venture to say that this is true for the majority of students at most landlocked universities. For these students, the ocean is a mystery that they want to explore. Herman Melville believed people were universally attracted to water. He explained, “There is magic in it.  Let the most absent- minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.”4

As educators, we often fall back on the familiar to help students comprehend challenging topics. We liken political rivalries to the squabbles on Game of Thrones (I know I’m not alone, here!). But, there is a place for the unfamiliar in the classroom. Teachers can make use of students’ attraction to things with which they have no experience. Linking topics or methods most students find unattractive to exotic magnets hooks young learners and sparks their interest. And there is magic in water.


1 John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607–1789 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1985), 5–6.

2 Robert J. Antony, Pirates in the Age of Sail (New York, 2007), 3.

3 James F. Shepherd and Gary M. Walton, Shipping, Maritime Trade and the Economic Development of Colonial North America (Cambridge, UK,, 1972).

4 Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York, 2001), 4.

8 July 2019

About the Author

Christopher Magra is Professor of History at the University of Tennessee.

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