Statistical Thinking between Natural and Social Sciences and the Issue of the Unity of Science: from Quetelet to the Vienna Circle

In Wenceslao J. Gonzalez Dennis Dieks (ed.), Probabilities, Laws, and Structures. Dordrecht, Niederlande: (2012)
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The application of statistical methods and models both in the natural and social sciences is nowadays a trivial fact which nobody would deny. Bold analogies even suggest the application of the same statistical models to fields as different as statistical mechanics and economics, among them the case of the young and controversial discipline of Econophysics . Less trivial, however, is the answer to the philosophical question, which has been raised ever since the possibility of “commuting” statistical thinking and models between natural and social sciences emerged: whether such a methodological kinship would imply some kind of more profound unity of the natural and the social domain. Starting with Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874) and ending with the Vienna Circle (from the late 1920s until the 1940s), this paper offers a brief historical and philosophical reconstruction of some important stages in the development of statistics as “commuting” between the natural and the social sciences. This reconstruction is meant to highlight (with respect to the authors under consideration): (1) the existence of a significant correlation between the readiness to “transfer” statistical thinking from natural to social sciences and vice versa, on the one hand, and the standpoints on the issue of the unity/disunity of science, on the other; (2) the historical roots and the fortunes of the analogy between statistical models of society and statistical models of gases.

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Donata Romizi
University of Vienna


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