This article investigates the role played by narrative in drawing inferences from statistics before the adoption of formal inference regimes in economics. Two well-known, and exemplary, cases of informal inference provide the materials. Nikolai Kondratiev’s struggles to make inferences about the existence of his “long waves” from heaps of statistics in the 1920s contrast sharply with Thomas Robert Malthus’s confident account of demographic-economic oscillations made on the basis of the limited numbers available in the late eighteenth century. Comparison of their inferential reasoning, using detailed textual analysis, casts attention on the important role of narrative. These cases prompt the notion of “narrative inference”: where informal statistical inference depends on narrative accounts—used to make sense of the numbers by Malthus or to add sense onto the numbers by Kondratiev.

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