Freakonomics meets Pirates of the Caribbean

That’s how the Las Vegas Weekly describes economist Pete Leeson‘s book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates.

The Invisible Hook is an excellent book by one of the most creative young economists around, Pete Leeson, based off some of his academic papers, including this one that was published in Journal of Political Economy when I was the editor. I have to admit that as an editor I was skeptical when I received a manuscript on pirates from an obscure economist, but the combination of careful research and really interesting insights quickly won me over to Leeson’s work.

More recently, I was lucky enough to have Leeson, who is a professor at George Mason University, spend the fall quarter visiting the Becker Center at the University of Chicago, during which time I got to hear about his new work on “ordeals.” Here is the beginning of the abstract of this new paper:

For 400 years the most sophisticated persons in Europe decided difficult criminal cases by asking the defendant to thrust his arm into a cauldron of boiling water and fish out a ring. If his arm was unharmed, he was exonerated. If not, he was convicted. Alternatively, a priest dunked the defendant in a pool. Sinking proved his innocence; floating proved his guilt. People called these trials ordeals. No one alive today believes ordeals were a good way to decide defendants’ guilt. But maybe they should.

Ian Kemmish

That paper could only have been written by a modern!

To be foresworn called down eternal punishment on the soul of the swearer. Thus, to a believer, being required to swear an oath would quite obviously have been a far more terrible threat than the purely temporal threats of torture or of an ordeal - yet the author assumes the opposite.

For ordeal to have replaced oaths, one must have no faith in divine justice when it comes to punishing perjury, but complete faith when it comes to ordeals. That viewpoint simply would not have made any sense to a mediaeval - and it doesn't to me either.

If it is true that ordeal replaced the swearing of oaths, the explanation for that change must have been different to the one presented by the author.


Interesting. Leesons paper actually reminds me of polygraphs in the US.

In most European jurisdictions, polygraphs are not considered reliable evidence and are not used by the police. A liar can flunk them easily, a person which tells the truth can fail. As no one trusts them, they have no value in sorting the guilty from the innocent.

But in a system in which most people believe superstitiously in polygraphs they will work like ordeals.

Don Kosloff

So, Tyler, in which US jurisdictions are polygraphs considered reliable evidence? My understanding is that they are not even considered to be evidence of any kind in any US jurisdiction.


from spain you are a crack..
sorry for my bad english jajaj.
I read your book "freakeconomic" and are fantastic..

gevin shaw

As always, Leeson gives us something interesting to mull over. But as always, in the end, we have to reject his infatuation with anarchy and the explotation of the weak by the strong, and return to civilization.

"The real danger to ordeals when priests had to condemn innocent probands wasn't that condemned probands would tell others that ordeals are a sham or that they would exploit the system. It was that publicly observed events would contradict ordeal results, evidencing ordeals Â'illegitimacy."

Or perhaps the real danger was to the innocent proband who was condemned by having his hand dipped in boiling water and at least lost its use, if not his life from the resulting untreated infection.

"...probands failed their ordeals in only 78 cases, or 37.5 percent of the time."

That sounds like an economist's acceptable rate of torture of the innocent.

"For the histories of those times contain innumerable examples of persons plunging their naked arms into boiling water, handling red-hot balls of iron, and walking upon burning ploughshares, without receiving the least injury."

Leeson allows that the results of ordeals might be fixed, but not that the reports of them might be, and for the same reasons he describes of ensuring confidence in the procedure.

In addition, I fear he may overstate the strength of belief in God of the community. They would have every reason, in medieval Europe, to question that a higher power had anything to do with their lot in life, but with an powerful church punishing heresy and blasphemy in order to preserve its position, that question would remain mute. And while I'm sure there were priests who entered the church for reasons other than the most holy, I fear he may understate the reliance of the clergy on God, or their willingness to submit a sinner, innocent or guilty, to His judgement.



The paper on "Ordeals" is laughable at best.

You speak of "socially useful superstition" and pretend it is economic science. Lets talk about the boogie man of the state as useful for slavery and coercion. Lenin's and Stalin's economists were quite useful and value free.

I suggest you thrust your hand into a boiling cauldron or let a priest dunk you into a pool.

Sinking will prove your innocence.


In the hot water solution, the normal thing happens (to my feeling, that is). If you're innocent, you or your hand will survive the ordeal.
"If he's innocent, the proband will succeed in bring[ing] forth his hand safe and unharmed from this water. But if he be guilty and presume to plunge in his hand, it will show harm from burning on inspection three days later".

In the cold water ordeal, you die if you're innocent: "If he's guilty and seeks to hide the truth by a lie, [he] cannot be submerged. If he's innocent, he can be submerged: he'll sink."
(quotes from pp. 5-6)


For all the negative comments posted above (incl. my own), i thought the paper was really smart. Leeson shows how this system did/could work provided most people believed in divine intervention in the ordeal.
However, I see at a problem with his conclusion as regards socially beneficial superstition. It seems hard to encourage superstition in certain domains where that's useful while discouraging it elsewhere. In a population where superstition's rampant, won't you have key decision made on the basis of Tarot reading, astrology etc rather than good analysis?