Chapter 7: Comparing the Incomparable: The Sociology of Statistics
Alain Desrosières Introduction Augustin Cournot (1801–77) is frequently presented as one of the founding fathers of mathematical modelling in economics. In contemporary terms, mathematical modelling of economic phenomena involves either purely theoretical or hypothetico-deductive constructions, or, more commonly, the testing of theoretical hypotheses against statistical data, using econometric tools. Yet the combination of theory and empirical data in this way is a recent development. Modern econometrics in its unified form took off only in the 1930s (Morgan, 1990; Armatte, 1995). Cournot’s work in economic modelling, by contrast, divided into two separate parts, each represented by a book. His first book, from 1838, concerned the ‘theory of wealth’, whereas the second book treated a different topic, the ‘theory of chance and probability’, and there was no connection between the two. The same dichotomy appeared in the case of other authors, such as Edgeworth and Keynes. Claude Ménard (1977) has examined the ‘resistance to statistics’ of three nineteenth-century economists: Say, Cournot and Walras. In Cournot’s treatise of 1843, which broke new ground in the theory of knowledge, Ménard found ‘an epistemological representation in which the method of investigation and the object of knowledge are perceived as independent’. Cournot, however, did not see in statistics a satisfactory instrument for the support of theoretical hypotheses. Statistics presupposed conventions and comparisons that could not be replicated fully. Paraphrasing Cournot, Ménard remarks: If the exact same experiment can never be repeated, how can the specificity of social facts be compared? These...
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