“Causes, Conditions, and Comparative Trials: Agricultural Experimentation around 1800”
This paper is a part of a broader attempt to come to grips with a key ingredient of experimentation, experimental control. I focus on a particular type of control experiment, the comparative trial in agriculture. Agricultural trials have mostly been discussed from the perspective of the development of statistical thinking, and historians have approached them looking for evidence of statistical interpretations of trial outcomes. In my paper, I shift the focus to the methodological principles guiding comparative trial design and their history. I trace how these principles unfolded and took shape in 18th-century discussions about how to make experimental findings more secure. I also show that comparative experiments were introduced in diverse experimental contexts, in agriculture and beyond. Comparative trials were perceived as an extra check on experimental trials when the multitude of circumstances and conditions was particularly complex and difficult to manage.
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