Real historians look for evidence in primary sources. For example, if you want to know about economic activity in a particular place and time, tax records for that time, contemporary financial accounts and ledgers of people and companies and organizations, census records, and personal letters/diaries may provide evidence.
If you just want a good story, of course, you don’t need to do all that work. Just make something up, or repeat what somebody else made up long after the fact, and call it good.
Any decent liberal arts college/university has a course on historiography or historical methods; you might take a look at the syllabus or texts for a few.
In practice, historians have to be extremely selective in the facts they choose to craft their narrative. There is simply no other possible way of doing history. Real life is too complex. You need to ignore the vast majority of what was going on in any period in order to have a readable text. To start, virtually nothing remains of past civilizations. What does remain is biased and extremely limited in scope.
If you go into a historical project with no ideological framework you will come out with a bunch of unmoored facts and maybe a bathroom book.
But yes, Wikipedia entries have been made, syllabi have been written, PhDs have been padded, and undergrads have been charged tuition in the service of historians’ attempt to erect a facile resemblance to real science.
All of these observations are at least as undermining to McCloskey’s own thesis as to any competing model of modern history. Indeed, her model is doing most of the “ignoring the vast majority of what was going on” in order to push its very dubious claim that the industrial revolution was fundamentally due to “pro-bourgeois rhetoric”.
Nonsense. Conditions for “the 90%” in most societies 300 years ago were vastly different from the conditions of their ancestors 20K years ago. Agriculture, urbanization, money, modern militaries, technology, trade and so forth had transformed the world of most of humanity to something completely unrecognizable by the small groups of prehistoric hunter-gatherers you’re comparing them to.
Such comparisons are based on profoundly ignorant misunderstanding of the historical realities of early modern people. In the 17th century, for example, about 30% of English and French males were literate, and about half as many females.
“Scrounging around in mud” is a ridiculously reductionist way to describe the life activities even of prehistoric humans, but to think that it’s equally applicable to 90% of humans in, say, 1500 CE is just absurd.
I would disagree. I believe that there is and always has been some percentage of the population (noble or not) who will look for opportunities to innovate and prosper while the rest are content to just sit around being “the masses”. Even today, the greater percentage of people are content to just wallow in their low-level jobs, living their mundane lives, taking no action to better themselves. The evidence being society has advanced, even without modern tech just being magically dropped into history.
A democratization of ideas and innovation, as described by the OP’s article, was both a result and an enabler of the Industrial Revolution. The harnessing of hydro, steam, chemicals, electricity, fossil fuels, later solar, nuclear, and data meant that the amount of work that could be produced no longer scaled directly to the number of people and animals that could be bread and trained. Prior to that, maybe a hand tool enabled a farmer to farm twice as fast. The farmer could still only farm so many hours in a day. Slaves might free up the farmer to work on other things, but they you still had to provide food for those slaves.
The application of industrialization freed people to focus on new ideas, which led to more innovation, leading to more people freed to think up new ideas. Prior to that, everyone but the nobility was too busy farming.
And let’s not forget that you still need capital to finance these operations. Even in Silicon Valley, ideas are nothing without someone to underwrite them.
As for “what comes next”, it seems to me that we are rapidly approaching a point where the nature of all this innovation is causing capital to consolidate (which probably isn’t the intended point for an article originally appearing in the National Review). And the newest technology is causing some dangerous problems with how ideas are communicated and shared.
IOW, it seems to me that the “Great Enrichment” isn’t reaching everyone equally.