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Wang on PSAC, Pt. 3: Attitudes and Ideas in the History of Policy August 16, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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In Pt. 2 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow, I critiqued Wang’s adherence to a central analytical rubric pitting an “enthusiasm” for technological “fixes” against a more reserved “skepticism”.  I argued that the rubric led to misleading interpretations of selected quotes.  It modified, rather than moved beyond, a questionable narrative of 20th-century ideas about the relationship between politics and science.  Finally, the narrative mainly seemed to function as a way of explaining why good reason often fails to prevent bad outcomes — as might be expected given the narrative’s origins in historical polemics.

Nevertheless, readers of this book who are prepared to disagree with certain aspects of it can and should still find a great deal that is useful.  My more pressing concern is what aspects of history are simply forgotten because they can only be found by probing beyond what the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric can parse.

One key issue is the characterization of the importance of the President’s Science Advisory Committee as fulfilling an almost unique role as scientific skeptics in a government apparently otherwise enamored with the prospect of technological fixes to policy problems.  However, this creates the impression that those whose general attitudes are labeled enthusiastic held a belief in something like what we might call “technology without policy”.

For example, we might be led to believe that these individuals thought development of nuclear weapons obviated the need for diplomacy.  But does this really describe their position, or is it a caricature of their position? Perhaps, cognizant of the increasingly long lag-times between development and production, proponents of arms development were reluctant to relinquish advantages based on possibly ephemeral diplomatic gains.

Also, by attributing to enthusiasm individuals’ adherence to strategic positions, such as a maximally robust technological preparedness, it may detract from a recognition of those individuals’ skepticism at times when they were not pursuing those positions.  For example, although runaway defense R&D in the Cold War is seen as symptom of a technologically enthusiastic military, in my own research I have found the military services to have been quite interested in controlling the wasteful duplication of projects and the pursuit of development contracts that do not lead to a procured technology.  As flush with funding as the military was, they, too, demonstrated restraint within their own realms of management.

This is not just about coming to a better understanding of the “enthusiasts”.  It is also about understanding the “skeptics'” positions and how they came to them.  Let’s say we take a softer position on the enthusiasts and allow that their general attitude did not actually exclude them having a position on the role of diplomacy in foreign policy.  We are now forced to distinguish their ideas on the relationship between diplomacy and weapons development from those of the skeptics, since no government adviser was against development, only the development of certain technologies.  According to what more particular ideas, then, did they decide which development programs constituted a reasonably restrained policy?

Here is where a more thorough picture of the workings of PSAC would have been useful.  Wang offers portraits of some members’ personalities, but they often come off as figures who are consulted and recommend, rather than people who deliberate and conclude.  To what extent that is or is not true, I can’t really say.  The scientific/technical knowledge and advisory/administrative experience of PSAC members receive insufficient attention.  It is not clear how members’ experience informed, or did not inform, PSAC’s work.  Although the PSAC panel system’s work receives ample mention, it is not clear how the system functioned.  How were panel members chosen, how did they study issues, and did how their work mesh with the work of the committee itself?

How, in the light of all of this, did PSAC differ, or not differ, in its activities from other, not specifically scientific standing and ad hoc blue ribbon groups?  Wang’s analysis of PSAC as depending on a certain model of technocratic polity suggests an important distinction, but I am inclined to suspect more of a parallel.

Where In Sputnik’s Shadow seems to ask what the implication of PSAC was for science and technology in the American state, a more constructive question might have been: what was a specifically science-and-technology committee supposed to be able to accomplish at the White House level?  While it might be intuitive to see a top-level science committee as indicating a certain indication of respect or seriousness with which matters of science and technology were handled by the state as a whole, this is more typically an outsider’s perception.  Custodians of bureaucratic machinery would be more inclined to ask whether individuals with a certain expertise are in places where their expertise can be of most use, and this is not necessarily at the highest level.

It is only when certain administrative problems rise to the top level that such advice can really be fruitful.  Notably, even with the unification of the military services under the Defense Department in the late 1940s, the White House continued to have trouble uniting service ambitions under a central defense policy.  As President Eisenhower attempted to tame this system, including by streamlining defense R&D spending, choices about what projects to pursue and what projects to cancel depended on a technical understanding of those projects’ competing merits.  However, all technical information was generated by the services competing for those projects, which was a clear conflict of interest.  In this case, PSAC represented one of the few organizations that could offer readings of this evidence on which the administration could rely.

While Wang does get at the importance of interservice rivalries, these are portrayed more as a function of the services’ innate enthusiasm against Eisenhower’s more staid attitude toward technology,  rather than as a function of Eisenhower’s more general administrative problem in getting the services to put aside their conflicts of interest in the interest of a coherent policy.

This also becomes important when Kennedy becomes President.  PSAC was one organization in a long line of inadequate attempts to control defense R&D.  Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Planning Programming and Budgeting System (PPBS) was supposed to offer a newly effective means of bringing spending into line with overall defense goals.

This actually explains rather well an incident to which Wang refers: “When [PSAC chair Jerome] Wiesner first described to him the role of his office and PSAC, McNamara responded that ‘If I am doing my job properly, none of these would be necessary'” (190).  Wang doesn’t bother to describe McNamara’s primary mission as essentially being to take technical decisions about defense expenditure out of the ad hoc intervention of the White House and (with the aid of a new Office of Systems Analysis) put it back into a Pentagon dedicated to serving White House policies, where such decisions would reasonably belong.  Instead: “McNamara soon came to appreciate the independent judgments, and often support, that Wiesner and PSAC could provide him at the presidential level.”  His “initial skepticism” (247) to PSAC soon melted away.

Now, McNamara is always a tricky figure to deal with, and I think that Wang does a generally good job.  Classically, McNamara is painted as an enthusiast, full stop, because of implementation of PPBS at the Pentagon, and because he presided over the escalation of the Vietnam War, which is often explained (including in this book) as a product of America’s technological hubris.  Wang makes clear, I think correctly, that McNamara always had a more ambivalent take on technology and quantitative methods of management than generally assumed, and that the failures of his term as Secretary of Defense cannot be explained by reference to a sort of technocratic mentality.

What is most needed, however, is not a more proper assessment of particular individuals’ or agencies’ generic attitudes toward science and technology, but a more nuanced understanding of the decisions they faced and the means they used to face them.

A good comparison might be US Naval Academy historian Benjamin Greene’s book, Eisenhower, Science Advice, and the Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1945-1963 (Stanford UP, 2007; if you don’t want to read it, check out Michael Gordin’s useful review, available as a freebie from the American Historical Review).  In that book, Greene very nicely explains why Eisenhower was early-on content to rely on advice from AEC chair Lewis Strauss and his political ally Edward Teller.  It also explains how their technical concerns about the drawbacks of a test ban could make a test ban appear undesirable, but how access to a wider range of technical opinion could make a test ban at least appear to be a viable goal.  Such treatments allow for clear portrayals of the ways in which policy can depend on technical knowledge, and how a good system of technical advising, when deployed by a conscientious executive, has impacted the formulation of policy, even without offering scientifically validated answers to policy problems.

Such approaches seem to me both more faithful to the historical record, and also more useful than attempts to see the scattered historical attempts to define science vs. politics, or the struggle between skeptics and enthusiasts as the defining features of the recent history of a thoroughly and irreversibly technocratic state.



1. Charles Day - August 25, 2010

Our short chat yesterday inspired me to post on my blog about the history of science — and to seek your blog. I wrote the post after finding your blog, so I was pleased to discover that we’d both featured Zouyue’s work.

2. Will Thomas - August 25, 2010

Thanks for the comment, Charles. Zuoyue Wang’s article is very good. To other EWP readers, if you haven’t seen Wang talk on Chinese and Chinese-American physicists, do have a look at his article in the Focus section of the latest Isis (available for free). I’m also partial to Paul Erickson’s article, since his stuff on game theory runs adjacent to my work on OR and related policy analysis sciences. It’s sort of a six-page version of a good chunk of his dissertation (which is great), so the article’s a bit cramped, but it’s still a good run-through of theoretical “peace research”.

Charles is the online editor at Physics Today, which is just down the hall from the History Center here at AIP. He also runs a blog for Physics Today called “The Dayside”, at http://blogs.physicstoday.org/thedayside/.

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