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Rothbard vs. Induction

Murray Rothbard rejects induction! An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (emphasis added):

This prolific statesman and writer [Francis Bacon], with great fanfare and self-advertisement, in a series of books from the 1600s to the 1620s, set forth a series of injunctions about the proper method of scientific inquiry into the world, including social as well as natural sciences. Essentially, Bacon wrote numerous exhortations to everyone else to engage in detailed factual investigation into all life, all the world, all human history. Francis Bacon was the prophet of primitive and naive empiricism, the guru of fact-grubbing. Look at ‘the facts’, all ‘the facts’, long enough, he opined, and knowledge, including theoretical knowledge, will rise phoenix-like, self-supporting and self-sustained, out of the mountainous heap of data.

Although he talked impressively about surveying in detail all the facts of human knowledge, Bacon himself never came close to fulfilling this monstrous task. Essentially, he was the meta-empiricist, the head coach and cheerleader of fact-grubbing, exhorting other people to gather all the facts and castigating any alternative method of knowledge. He claimed to have invented a new logic, the only correct form of material knowledge – ‘induction’ – by which enormous masses of details could somehow form themselves into general truths.

This sort of ‘accomplishment’ is dubious at best. Not only was it a prolegomenon to knowledge rather than knowledge itself; it was completely wrong about how science has ever done its work. No scientific truths are ever discovered by inchoate fact-digging. The scientist must first have framed hypotheses; in short, the scientist, before gathering and collating facts, must have a pretty good idea of what to look for, and why. Once in a while, social scientists get misled by Baconian notions into thinking that their knowledge is ‘purely factual’, without presuppositions and therefore ‘scientific’, when what this really means is that their presuppositions and assumptions remain hidden from view.

I wonder what, if any of this, Rothbard got from Popper. The book is from 1995, decades after Popper had explained this.

Elliot Temple on October 12, 2018


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