Measurement, Quantification, and Economic Analysis: Numeracy in Economics

By Ingrid H. Rima | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

Ordering society

The early uses of classification in the British statistical organizations

James P. Henderson

Man in society is the subject of our study; to detect the influences which bear upon his welfare, our ultimate aim; inductive reasoning from phenomena observable and observed with mathematical precision, our method; and to make use of all evidence of this character which may be turned up in the daily working of society, as well as to collect new data, our necessity.

(Journal of the Statistical Society May 1849:98)


INTRODUCTION

This statement was adopted as the epigraph to this chapter because it is the most eloquent explication of the mission of the Statistical Society. As their science became more sophisticated and as statisticians developed new analytical tools, the role of classification changed. In nineteenth-century Britain science was regarded as an adornment to culture as a form of systematic knowledge. Classification of the branches of knowledge was thus an important feature of scientific endeavor. William Whewell maintained that: “The classification of knowledge has its chief use in pointing out to us the extent of our powers of arriving at truth, and the analogies which may obtain between those certain and lucid portions of knowledge…and those other portions” (Whewell 1847: vol. II, p. 113). Whewell believed that “The classification of human knowledge will…have a more peculiar importance when we can include in it the moral, political, and metaphysical, as well as the physical portions of our knowledge” (Whewell 1847: vol. II, p. 113). Statistics and economics were the first of these nonphysical “portions of our knowledge” to be admitted into the halls of science by those who demonstrated that they had a proper place in the classification of sciences.

The role of classification in a systematic inductive approach to science was first detailed by John F. W. Herschel in A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy 1830. Herschel’s book included four chapters devoted to “the rules by which a systematic examination of nature should be conducted…” (Herschel 1830:75). These chapters outline four steps in the

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