Second Narrative Science Seminar: Tidal Narrative Ordering for Whewell and San Francisco, and Independent Discovery of Utility Narratives in Economics
Author: Dominic Berry.
These two talks furthered the Narrative Science seminar series, which will continue throughout 2019. For more details please see the Events page of the website. The first paper was presented by Julia Sánchez-Dorado and Claudia Cristalli, both of UCL, working in the mode of integrated HPS. The second was given by Prof. Mary S. Morgan, leader of the Narrative Science project, based on a presentation given a week earlier in Seattle at the History of Science Society annual conference.
Julia Sánchez-Dorado (UCL) and Claudia Cristalli (UCL)
Colligation in model analysis: from Whewell’s tides to the San Francisco Bay Model
One aim of the talk was to bring attention to the first philosophical articulation of ‘colligation’ by William Whewell, an idea that has been part of the bedrock of the Narrative Science project from the getgo, and which can be found in a number of articles in the 2017 ‘Narrative in Science’ special issue. They wished to preserve particular aspects of Whewell’s original conceptualisation which might otherwise be lost if we broaden the notion to simply mean ‘gathering things together’. Colligation as described in Whewell’s The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1847) arises as an ‘act of thought’ of bringing together empirical evidence and placing a novel conception onto them and their relations. Key features were then drawn out through Whewell’s work on tidology, the study of tides, for which Whewell thought colligation was essential, as without it one might never reach a systematic and law-like account of tidal phenomena. His state-of-the-art was to study times of low and high tides for different coasts around the world, as then known, to draw ‘co-tidal’ lines between points where low and high coincide, in the process finding global tidal relations. This was colligation in action, and for Whewell, was a way to begin generalising in a mapping practice what was otherwise a seemingly random phenomena.
Sánchez-Dorado and Cristalli then compared this kind of data collection and modelling with a C20th example, engineers and scientists trying to model tidal activity in the San Francisco Bay. This model was meant to capture the tidal activity of the area accurately enough that it could be used to predict the future effect of, for instance, building a damn ahead of the bay. But how to select the relevant features to model, and how to relate them? Here they find that colligation was again central, not only in deciding which features mattered for the model, but also for assessing how well the model mapped onto the behaviour of tides found in the Bay.
In the question period we focussed on different notions of colligation, for on the one hand the making of a series of observations and their compiling in a model, and on the other the use of the model to answer particular questions. The extent to which narrative mattered in these two senses could be clearer, and more work could be done to draw out the importance of narratives for using models as opposed to making them in the first place. Others wanted to know more about the process of using colligation in producing things like co-tidal lines, where idealisms and visuality come into what Whewell is producing. In response we heard that there were two primary competing theories of tides in the C19th, the one that argued tides worked synchronically - i.e. independent of one another - the other that the globe should be thought of as essentially a large box full of water which sloshes about creating patterns of regularity. Colligation mattered in particular for bringing together all the high tides to create a visual picture of patterning, in the process exaggerating and idealising the lines he ‘saw’, but this was only one part of Whewell’s search for regularities.
Mary S. Morgan (LSE)
Simultaneous Discovery or Competing Concepts? Economists's Notions of Utility in the Late 19th Century
This paper focussed on narratives in concept formation, Morgan deriving evidence of multiple kinds of small or large narrative being involved in the making of concepts of utility used by C19th economists. Kicking off slightly earlier, Mary emphasised how Adam Smith’s argument that wealth creation is the result of divisions of labour was effectively a large narrative about the interrelations of states. Smith’s labour theory of value became one of the most important and influential narratives available to C18th economists and well into the C19th. Labour was seen as a key constituent of what makes use value and exchange value, which are consistently explained through short simple and idealised real-life examples, such as use of labour in the hunting of deer and bears and the exchange value of their hides relative to the labour it takes to kill them. Smith’s ideas would be overtaken in the late C19th by the notion of ‘marginal utility’ established independently by at least four different economists working at this time; Carl Menger, John Bates Clark, William Stanley Jevons and Léon Walras. Their publications are classical foundational texts for modern economics. With marginal utility what matters more is the extent to which any given person ranks the value of a good for themselves, which may or may not have anything to do with the amount of labour that the good embodies.
Morgan points out how each of these authors attempted to establish marginal utility as a concept, often relying on narrative for these purposes. For example Jevons’ utility curve measures the increase or deterioration of a good’s desirability as more is consumed, which as with the earlier generation of economists, he illustrates through short literary accounts. One example is the ‘paradoxical parable’ of the value of water in contrast with diamonds, which he explains as not actually problematic or paradoxical because there is loads of water available but diamonds are scarce and produce a different experience for the acquiring consumer. In Jevons alone there are other narratives of human behaviour, which he mathematizes, and further thought experiments regarding, for instance, how to decide the apportioning of food on a ship lost at sea. A great many more narrative examples can be found in all of these authors, all of which Morgan argues contributed to the making and refining of concepts of utility.
In the question period the audience wanted to know more about the range and functions of the short narratives used by economists to illustrate differential ranking of need and value. Did they, for instance, ever reflect on the normative or moral components of these short real-life examples? Morgan has yet to find any evidence of this kind of reflexivity! Morgan also took the opportunity to clarify a clear difference between the earlier examples associated with Smith, which are clearly designed to draw the reader in and have a lot of rhetorical power, whereas the later examples from Jevons et al. which tend to get more intricate and are focussed on how to think through a given problem. Others asked about the extent to which all of these little narratives are doing different kinds of work, and whether any two economists alighting on a particular narrative necessarily means they are talking about the case for the same reason. In response Morgan points out how widespread were some of these examples, which could be seen as forming a crucial part of the discursive element of the development of economic theory. Robinson Crusoe for instance is picked up and applied by most economists working at this time. Nevertheless she agrees that the uses to which such narratives were put could vary widely.
We have already hosted the third Narrative Science seminar, featuring Caitlin Donahue Wylie and Sigrid Leyssen, about which a blog post will soon follow.
The next Narrative Science seminar, which will be the last one for this term, will take place on the 4th of December and features Lukas Engelmann on ‘Epidemiology as Narrative Science: Outbreak reports of the third plague pandemic from 1894 to 1952’ and Sabine Baier on ‘How Many Molecules Does It Take To Tell A Story?- Managing Epistemic Distances In Medicinal Chemistry’. As ever, please see the Events page for their abstract and information about timing and location.
We have also recently announced a call for applicants to attend our next Narrative Science workshop, Expert Narratives: Systems, policies and practices. Spaces are limited but we will attempt to accommodate as many of you as we can. You should also know that we have made available 4 PhD student travel bursaries, details for applicants are all found on that same workshop notice.