Urn arguing

23 Jun, 2015 at 18:03 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

treatprob-2In my judgment, the practical usefulness of those modes of inference, here termed Universal and Statistical Induction, on the validity of which the boasted knowledge of modern science depends, can only exist—and I do not now pause to inquire again whether such an argument must be circular—if the universe of phenomena does in fact present those peculiar characteristics of atomism and limited variety which appear more and more clearly as the ultimate result to which material science is tending …

The physicists of the nineteenth century have reduced matter to the collisions and arrangements of particles, between which the ultimate qualitative differences are very few …

The validity of some current modes of inference may depend on the assumption that it is to material of this kind that we are applying them … Professors of probability have been often and justly derided for arguing as if nature were an urn containing black and white balls in fixed proportions. Quetelet once declared in so many words—“l’urne que nous interrogeons, c’est la nature.” But again in the history of science the methods of astrology may prove useful to the astronomer; and it may turn out to be true—reversing Quetelet’s expression—that “La nature que nous interrogeons, c’est une urne”.

Professors of probability and statistics, yes. And more or less every neoclassical economist!


  1. The neoclassicals do put great store on the importance of being urn-ist. It’s no surprise on a number of levels. Probability theory was essentially created to “explain” or at least characterise the unexplainable relationships between events under observation. To me it seems strange and incongruent that science, which can define reasonably stable laws explaining the operation of nature on mega scales, has to resort to atomisation and randomness to explain the behaviour of nature on infinitesimally small scales. This is just the current state of play. Neoclassical theory being bereft of any real understanding of the nature of economic behaviour has to resort to the same techniques. On another level, those that seem to be drawn to neoclassical theory seem to be frustrated engineers and technocrats, finding facile explanations wrapped in mathematics appealing. And of course seemingly precise mathematical formulation of behaviour gives the illusion of the “scientificness” that they crave.

  2. The importance of being urn-ist.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist. 😉

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