Jamie Pietruska, Rutgers, Department of History
"Old Probabilities" and "Cotton Guesses": Weather Forecasts, Agricultural Statistics, and Uncertainty in the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century United States

This talk, which is drawn from Looking Forward: Prediction and Uncertainty in Modern America (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press), will examine weather forecasting and cotton forecasting as forms of knowledge production that initially sought to conquer unpredictability but ultimately accepted uncertainty in modern economic life. It will focus on contests between government and commercial forecasters over who had the authority to predict the future and the ensuing epistemological debates over the value and meaning of forecasting itself. Intellectual historians and historians of science have conceptualized the late nineteenth century in terms of “the taming of chance” in the shift from positivism to probabilism, but, as this talk will demonstrate, Americans also grappled with predictive uncertainties in daily life during a time when they increasingly came to believe in but also question the predictability of the weather, the harvest, and the future.