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QR and the Industrial Revolution

Nathan Grawe
published Jun 6, 2014

I am preparing to lead an off campus study program this summer to study (among other things) the Industrial Revolution. (Note: I'll be posting less frequently over the next few months as a result.) In course prep I came across a great sentence. Joel Moykr (p. 21) is in the middle of an argument that what explains the Industrial Revolution is an Industrial Enlightenment. He argues that the great inventions of the annus miribalis (1769) are viewed that way only because of what happened next. After all, the history prior to the Industrial Revolution is replete with inventions which produced one-time increases in living standards without initiating persistent growth.

So, what is different about the late 18th century in Britain (and, to a great degree, Northern Europe)? In addition to favorable institutional changes which supported the rule of law, Moykr argues for an Industrial Enlightenment that valued the systematized sharing of scientific knowledge for the purpose of material improvement. This stands in contrast with earlier Aristotelian goals of mere understanding. He writes, "[T]he methods of scientific endeavor spilled over into the technological sphere: the concepts of measurement, quantification and accuracy, which had never been an important part of the study of nature, gradually increased in importance. The noted historian of science Alexandre Koyre (1968) argued that the scientific revolution implied a move from a world of 'more or less' to one of measurement and precision."

For me, that's the real crux of QR education. We are waging a war for progress based on the appreciation for the power that quantitative evidence lends to the cause of human advancement. It really does matter "what the numbers show"–not just in some narrow sense, but in a deep, philosophical way that entirely alters the way we live and approach problems. In essence, Moykr is arguing that the QR state of mind is at the center of why, after millenia of more or less stagnant living standards, we have arrived at an expectation of growth.

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