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February 15, 2019


Roy Lonergan


The better version of the alleged Rutherford quote is from Lord Kelvin:

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”

Quite a strong claim epistemologically, but more charitable than the Rutherford version.


Mike W


Rutherford/Kelvin quote.

I'm not sure they are the same form. The 'Merely stamp collecting' jibe is/was aimed at 19th Biology - classification etc, as much as modern Social Science or History.

In fact,the Kelvin quote would, for example, remove Darwin from his 'Scientific', as great as Newton position, and the stunning, first three chapters of 'Origins' (Variation Under Domestication, etc, as non-maths, 'non-science'. Clearly not a very sensible view to adopt.

Modern Econ seems to adopt a version of this fake 'maths' 'Ideal Type', apriori starting position as its most satisfactory 'demarcation criteria' from the other Social Sciences. As you say, 'Quite a strong claim epistemologically': far to strong, unless used to support an ideological position and you can get away with it!

As it happens, Darwin I recall, was once forced to give an estimate of number of years evolution needed to take place on our planet for the press. He had no real idea, but felt he should say something - so made a best guess, and stated this 'solid number' of years. Lord Kelvin jumped on this best guess and argued that his own estimate of the Earth's age didn't in fact allow for the millions of years Darwin had claimed.

So Kelvin's numbers showed Darwin's theory plain falsified by best practice 19th century Physics and Maths? At the time yes, but as we now know, Er.. no. (Darwin to his credit withdraw from the discussion)

Numbers - figures - natural language are all open to error, and like Kelvin's argument against Darwin itself, open to revision later. Maths equals Progress in Kuhn's 'Normal Science' for sure. But Genius like Darwin's uses all tools that can be found, well beyond an Econ 101, type understanding of our social world I fear.


A big problem is figuring how much relative weight to give to a series of facts, all of which are true.

Are you aware of George Friedman, of STRATFOR? Friedman frequently comes to conclusions about the world which seem bizarre and unlikely to me, even though nothing in his analyses is obviously based on false or out-of-date data. For instance, he thinks China’s long term prospects are really bad, and the Chinese state may even break apart within the next few decades. He’s not just talking about friction with the Uighurs and Tibetans, but between solidly Han-majority regions. He’s right that wealth disparities between the prosperous coastal cities and the poorer interior are growing. But my guess would be that the Chinese government would intervene and redistribute wealth aggressively if such disparities looked like they could lead to political dissolution.

Robert Mitchell

Physics couldn't even predict the orbital speed of stars in galaxies correctly, nor the accelerating expansion of the universe. Physics too is noisy. According to Fischer Black in Noise, everything human is noisy. So we should stop listening to economists telling us to fear inflation.

Andrew S

Yes, but... It seems to me that expiring information would focus on a process and non-expiring information is about an outcome. And if we don't get interested in, and engage with, a process, we might not like the outcome. Brexit is a case in point, but in other terms, if Arsenal are 1-0 up after 30 minutes, that is clearly expiring information. Do we just do something else until the final whistle? No, we cheer the team, swear at the referee and jeer the opponents to try and get the outcome we want

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