Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 67.djvu/534

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528
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

UNCONSCIOUS ASSUMPTIONS IN ECONOMICS.[1]
By Rev. W. CUNNINGHAM, D.D., D.S.C.

AMONG the members of any such gathering as a meeting of the Economic Section of the British Association there are likely to be some who come to give information and some who come to get it. In the latter class may, I am sure, be included all those habitués of the section who have seized the opportunity which the visit of the association affords, with the view of learning something about the present condition and prospects of the enormous territory which we hope to be able to traverse. It may not be so to the same extent in all sections. Those who come from the great chemical and physical laboratories of Europe may have much to say as to the result of experimental investigation, which they can carry on under more favorable conditions than are at present generally available to students in South Africa. But in economics there is no room for experimental inquiries consciously undertaken in the interest of the advancement of science. The issues are too serious; the conditions on which they depend can not be arranged for the convenience of the inquirer. Economics is a science of observation, not of experiment; and we are fortunate to find ourselves in specially favorable circumstances for noting and appreciating the results of investigations which have been made by skilled observers on the spot.

While we gratefully acknowledge the pains that have been taken here in preparing papers for this section, we may yet feel that the task we are setting ourselves as visitors is not an easy one. There are few harder things in this world than to preserve a genuinely receptive frame of mind, and hold the judgment in suspense when we are brought face to face with the unexpected. There are so many assumptions we all make, and so many canons of criticism we have habitually accepted, that are not easily laid aside, even temporarily. 'The worst use of theory,' as a great Cambridge professor has warned us, 'is to make men insensible to fact'[2] and the danger may be most real when we are not aware of the influence exercised by some hypothesis which we habitually make.

I. The popular discussion of economic problems teems with unconscious hypotheses, which tend to obscure the facts of the case. Mill


  1. Address by the president to the Economic Science and Statistics Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, South Africa, 1905.
  2. Lord Acton, English Historical Review, I. p. 40.