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Unfocused: Science, Technology, and the Cold War November 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Collectively, historians know a lot about science and technology during the Cold War.  A significant number of books and articles have been written about the ambitious technological systems developed during the era, the enormous scientific endeavors made possible by expanded state and military funding, the rise of new intellectual programs in fundamental physics and molecular biology, the expansion of geoscience and social science and the development of new methods in them, the global integration of scientific work, and the importance of digital computation, among other subjects.  Accordingly, the present is an excellent time to reflect on and consolidate what has been learned, render the history of the era more navigable, and to suggest forward-looking research programs.

Unfortunately, this past summer’s Isis Focus section, edited by David Kaiser and Hunter Heyck did not take the opportunity to do that.  The limit of the section’s synthesis essentially said what the paragraph above said at greater length, and left the rest of the space as a forum for the individual contributors to showcase their own research projects, which are taken to “exemplify” recent research trends.  In this way, this Focus section is little different from past sections, which position themselves as the beginnings of new conversation, present some new empirical work, but mainly simply recapitulate basic ideas that can be considered the agreed-upon points in an aging scholarship, while reciting the perpetual mantra that “more work is needed” for any real understanding to occur.  This blog typically does not take these sections up.  But, since Cold War-era science is my own specialty, I thought a (now rather belated) critique of this particular section might be in order.

The introduction by Kaiser and Heyck is milquetoast and cliché-ridden, which is especially disappointing given that these scholars’ own work is always substantial and analytically sharp. (See just about anything in Kaiser’s absurdly impressive oeuvre; for Heyck, see especially his fine Isis piece “Patrons of the Revolution” and his biography of Herbert Simon, which I positively reviewed in T&C).  The footnotes in the introduction reference a medley of recent works, but they are marshaled toward no substantial conclusions.  We learn that scholars are now doing more to study countries other than America (as, of course, they should).  Unsurprisingly it turns out international scientific and technological endeavors were “fueled and shaped, but not determined, by the conflict between the two superpowers, with this transformation taking on a wide array of local forms.”  Also, “Cold War science was much more than Big Science and Big Weaponry. It was a varied set of concepts, practices, technologies, social and institutional relationships, values, ideologies, and more.”  Indeed, a whole lot of stuff that happened was “not determined”, and, then, of course, there’s the clincher: “If one were to venture a summary, it might run something like this: the Cold War shaped science in profound ways, but there was no single, monolithic Cold War Science.”  Historians need some sort of apparatus on their keyboards that zaps them every time they describe something as “not monolithic”.

After years of intensive research, historians have at last been able to conclude that nothing that has ever happened in history was monolithic…. except perhaps the dawn of man.

The pieces by Zuoyue Wang, Paul Erickson, and David Engerman all seem rightly eager to shift attention away from the traditional themes imagined to link science to the Cold War.  Engerman is most explicit:

Historian Joel Isaac has called for more work on ‘middle‐range contextualizations’ that avoid sweeping claims about ‘Cold War social science.’ Such inquiries, he compellingly argues, will not rest their case by establishing the existence of federal patronage of the social sciences—or, more broadly, by assessing the place of the ‘national interest’ in the evolution of post–World War II academic thought. Working at the middle range of analysis will allow more careful attention to the ideas emerging out of the rapidly changing institutional matrix of the twentieth‐century American academy….  These studies will take the study of social science in the Cold War out of the shadows of the revelations of the 1960s — and practitioners’ rebuttals of those criticisms — and more fully into the realm of history.

In his piece, he argues for the grounding of area studies, which saw a boom in the Cold War, as intellectually anchored in problematics established in the interwar period.  Paul Erickson has a similar perspective on the historiographical argument that formal (esp. game theoretic) theories of decision and cognition relied upon “a thin vision of rationality” amenable to “an overarching ‘hegemonic’ discourse or dominant modeling idiom promoted by powerful state patrons of science.”  He allows, “This historiographic emphasis on unearthing a coherent Cold War discourse or culture, flowing from the Cold War’s most iconic institutions like the state and the military, clearly possesses great intuitive appeal. And clearly, military funding and objectives played a role in creating and disseminating theories of rational choice.”  Nevertheless,

while a focus on the influence of Cold War national security imperatives can explain the origins of some prominent mathematical techniques for analyzing rational choice, they do not explain these techniques’ subsequent appropriation, often long after the development of the mathematics in question, in such diverse areas as political theory, economics, and even evolutionary biology. They also fail to account for the exceptional persistence of rational choice approaches in these fields, often in the absence of any detectable military influence.

In this case, Erickson discusses the rise of Anatol Rapoport’s anti-militaristic “peace research” program, which nevertheless made use of the game theoretic idiom most often associated with theoretical examinations of nuclear strategy by figures like Thomas Schelling.  His very useful dissertation covers further appropriations of game theory, such as in population genetics.

In essence, the idea here is to move beyond a sort of revelatory mode of scholarship wherein it is argued (against whom?) that scientific work was of the Cold War rather than some pure mode of study, and to begin to deal more seriously with the fact that while this work certainly existed within the Cold War (who would argue otherwise?), it cannot be satisfactorily characterized as a Cold War phenomenon.  Other illuminating contexts must be found.

The search for illuminating context also pervades Wang’s work on Chinese and Chinese-American scientists.  Here, the US-Soviet tension that characteristically describes Cold War science cannot adequately describe the features of the US-China relationship, particularly as it pertained to the migration of scientists.  We must be able to juggle more balls at once to pick up on the nuances that pervaded the experience of scientists with Chinese roots.  This seems like a good project, both from this piece and from the talk version of it.

Kristie Macrakis and Rebecca Lemov take a more classical approach to Cold War-era science, which focuses upon the identification of a sort of techno-hypnotism that is supposed to have pervaded the period.  In Macrakis’ piece, “Technophilic Hubris and Espionage Styles during the Cold War” she contrasts what she views as American espionage’s over-reliance on technological methods with a Soviet emphasis on more successful human spies.  I have explained my discomfort with historians’ reliance on technological enthusiasm and skepticism as analytical categories in my posts on Wang’s book on the President’s Science Advisory Committee, and there is no need to amend it here.

Historians of science are in dire need of new accounts of Robert K. Merton’s sociology, having long used his delineated norms of science as something to kick around for not fully and accurately describing how science has historically worked (i.e., The Double Helix clearly proves Merton wrong, therefore we need never bother with him again).  Lemov’s research is helpful in this respect, here focusing on Merton’s development of the interview as a social scientific tool.  Unfortunately in her piece here we learn less than we might about the ideas within and rationales behind Merton’s work, which would establish its most illuminating context.  Instead, the object seems to be mainly to meditate on the status of Merton’s ideas as part of a generic “zeal for method” which takes place in the context of “the technophilic fervor” that was ascendant in the “late 1940s and 1950s”.  Merton’s explication of his methodology through a hypothetical device called the introspectometer “marks and symbolizes a broader entry during the Cold War of science‐fiction‐style aspirations into methodological prescriptions and procedural manuals.”

This Focus section manifestly failed to provide any coherence to the historiography of the Cold War.  David Engerman’s piece probably did the best job of offering a historical and historiographical overview and hooking his piece into broader pictures, while steering clear of clichés about the broadest pictures.  Lamentably, he does not consider himself a historian of science, though I have seen him give two very good talks to history of science audiences.  The section also failed to critique, explain, or even really take note of, a major interpretive divide that now marks scholarship of science in the Cold War era, and that is clearly manifested between these pieces.

*Addendum.  Paul Erickson’s piece cites my 2007 BJHS piece “Heuristics of War” as something to consult “on the role of wartime and postwar patronage for operations research and related mathematical theories”.  If you consult that piece you will learn of no such thing (or you will learn about it inasmuch as you learn about it from any piece reflecting on wartime OR dating back to 1946).  Paul’s a friend of mine and I appreciate the citation, but the citation is demonstrative of the superficial and  haphazard way historians now use citations for anything but quotes — what I am starting to call the “footnote grab bag”.



1. Disaggregate, disaggregate! | The Undercover Historian - July 23, 2015

[…] in the 2010 ISIS issue on Cold War scholarship, to which Engerman is a contributor (see Will Thomas’s review of the issue). The audience was divided between those fed up with the “everything cold war” interpretation […]

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