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The Science of Conjecture
Evidence and Probability before Pascal

James Franklin

$25.00 paperback
978-0-8018-7109-2 (12 ctn qty)
2002 512 pp.
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Before Pascal and Fermat's discovery of the mathematics of probability in 1654, how did we make reliable predictions? What methods in law, science, commerce, philosophy, and logic helped us to get at the truth in cases where certainty was not attainable? In The Science of Conjecture, James Franklin examines how judges, witch inquisitors, and juries evaluated evidence; scientists weighed reasons for and against scientific theories; and merchants counted shipwrecks to determine insurance rates. Sometimes this type of reasoning avoided numbers entirely, as in the legal standard of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt"; at other times it involved rough numerical estimates, as in gambling odds or the level of risk in chance events. The Science of Conjecture provides a history of rational methods of dealing with uncertainty. Everyone can take a rough account of risk, Franklin argues, but understanding the principles of probability and using them to improve performance poses serious problems, the solution to which we have only learned over many generations and after much trial and error. This study explores the coming to consciousness of the human understanding of risk.


"Remarkable . . . Mr. Franklin writes clearly and exhibits a wry wit. But he also ranges knowledgeably across many disciplines and over many centuries . . . Perhaps the best reason to read this book . . . is its contemporary relevance . . . The lessons he discusses have pertinence to an age like ours, which has witnessed 'a gradual waning of faith in the objectivity of the relation of uncertain evidence to conclusion.'."—Roger Kimball, Wall Street Journal

"Franklin's style is clear and fluent, with an occasional sly Gibbonian aside to make the reader chuckle."—John Derbyshire, New Criterion

"The Science of Conjecture opens an old chest of human attempts to draw order from havoc and wipes clean the rust from some cast-off classical tools that can now be reused to help build a framework for the unpredictable future."—Jane Hawkins, Science

"Franklin gives a magisterial acount of matters as diverse as the Talmud, Justinian's Digest, torture, witch hunts, Tudor treason trials, ancient and medieval astronomy and physics, humanist historiography, scholastic philosophy, speculations in public debt, and 17th century mathematics. His treatment of medieval law . . . is among the best I have ever read."—James Gordley, International Journal of Evidence and Proof

"This is the intellectual book of the year, and it ought to become one of the great classics of intellectual history."—Scott Campbell, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews

"The Science of Conjecture is a masterly work, beautifully written, and based on encyclopaedic research . . . It is simply a tour de force that is unlikely to be surpassed for many a year."—Barry Miller, The Thomist

"Statistics teachers who like to sprinkle a little history and philophy into their classes will find much here to delight and challenge them . . . This is a serious and scholarly work that I expect often will inform my teaching."—Richard J. Cleary, Journal of the American Statistical Association

"[This book has given me] sheer enjoyment in its density of strange information, in the wit and clarity if its writing, and in the vigour of its argumentation. I recommend it unreservedly to all interested in its subject."—Oliver Mayo, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Statistics

"Franklin's book is magnificent . . . Think of [it] as a non-fiction equivalent of Tolstoy's War and Peace."—Peter Tillers, The Jurist

"An admirably accessible study written in a crisp prose. It presents the reader with anarching historical perspective throughout many a century of human action."—Giora Hon, Centaurus

"The strength of The Science of Conjecture lies in its panoramic exposition of developments across the centuries and across intellectual disciplines and human endeavors. It is, as one reviewer wrote, 'a magesterial account of matters as diverse as the Talmud, Justinian's Digest, torture, witch hunts, Tudor treason trials, ancient and medieval astronomy and physics, humanist histriography, scholastic philosophy, speculations in public debt, and 17th century mathematics.'"—D. H. Kaye, Law and History Review

"The Science of Conjecture is an extraordinary work, a clearly written history of the ideas of evidence and of uncertainty before Pascal. Franklin has mastered a vast literature over thousands of years, bringing it together in scholarly fashion, fully annotated."—Stephen Stigler, University of Chicago, author of The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty before 1900

Author Information

James Franklin is a senior lecturer in mathematics at the University of New South Wales.
A. W. F. Edwards

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