`Natural Laws’ of Economy

Eric Hammel

MICHAEL LÖWY WRITES (in his exchange with Terry Murphy, ATC 84, page 42) that “I don’t believe in `natural laws’ of economy or history,” and that “the model of scientific objectivity developed in physics or astronomy cannot be applied to the social sciences (where)) subject and object partially overlap, and where opposed social interests inevitably affect the process of knowledge.”

While the subject/object issue complicates (not necessarily insurmountably) direct application of experimental method to the present, it is no obstacle to hypothesis testing of past human history—particularly the use of statistical analysis to uncover hidden patterns—any more than in other historical sciences such as astronomy or evolutionary biology. And it has already been shown to be useful.

For instance, Frank Sulloway (who appears to be a liberal, not a Marxist) a few years ago published findings on determinants of the attitudes of historical figures (several thousand of them, with various historian-informants providing most of the data) toward social and (mostly) scientific movements. His conclusion, in short, was that family-dynamic factors played the majority role, with the single most important of these being birth order.

The p-values (chances of accidental correlation) were less than one in a billion in most cases. While I suspect that some of Sulloway’s definitions and choices had the effect of downplaying the role of class, there’s no escaping the reality of what he found—something never predicted by traditional Marxist or any other models, and discovered only by means of statistical hypothesis testing.

Yet potentially more significant is the prospect of applying the same methods to strategic and tactical questions that have so often divided the socialist movement, which seem permanently unresolvable by the traditional historian’s narrative-interpretation approach.

Without minimizing the difficulties, it would seem incumbent on us at least to try such an approach. Failure to do so, on the assumption that there are no laws to discover, would itself be profoundly anti-scientific and anti-empirical, as well as a great missed opportunity for studying how to change the world.—

Eric Hammel
Philadelphia, PA

ATC 85, March-April 2000