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Cold War Social Science and the Rubric of the “Cold War” September 6, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature. edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

I’d like to begin our look at this book with the question that Mark Solovey brings up in the title of his introductory piece, “Cold War Social Science: Specter, Reality, or Useful Concept?”  Basically, we now have a full-fledged professional historiography of “Cold War science and technology,” and a very large number of books and papers in the genre use the term “Cold War” as an adjective in their titles.  The idea, of course, is that the Cold War does not simply mark the period in which the events discussed take place, it is a (if not the) crucial context for understanding them.

As I understand the issue, we can divide up the way the Cold War matters into roughly three divisions:

  1. A lot of research was done directly in support of military and global political activities, most of it under contract with, and in some cases directly for, the military.
  2. Other research did not directly support Cold War activities, but it benefitted from state largess on the assumption that it might yield material benefit down the line, or the research was ancillary to category (1) research, and so funded as part of a broader package of work (say, theoretical mathematics related to cryptography).
  3. Other research had no relation to Cold War activities at all, but was nevertheless supported by rhetoric that linked it vaguely to the national interest, which was more apt to pique attention given Cold War anxieties.

The old Marxist position on the relations between research and its political and economic contexts is that those contexts dominate the ends to which scientific labor is put.  There can be no question that this observation is in broad strokes correct — research and development in category (1) grew enormously during the Cold War from already high pre-World War II levels.  Generally speaking, though, historians of science and technology have shown very little interest in the broad relations between research and the Cold War, paying very little attention to category (1).  As a rule, things like infrared missile guidance, MIRVs, and Abrams M1 tanks are left to the military and national security policy historiographies, rather than integrated into broader histories of science and technology.  There are exceptions, notably in the history of campus-based military research, nuclear technology,* and, indeed, social science.  (Also, the 1999 edited volume Cold War, Hot Science: Applied Research in Britain’s Defence Laboratories, 1945-1990 represents an unusual collaboration in this sphere.)

What historians do seem to be interested in is the relationship between the supposed generality of academic scientific knowledge and the opportunities and demands of the Cold War context.  This directs attention squarely at category (2).  Thus there has been substantial fascination with how apparently general scientific research can serve and benefit from military ends, and how military research gives rise to non-military traditions in science.  This is a major theme in, for instance, the recent spate of work on the oceanic sciences.

However, the old Marxist point persists in attempts to establish how Cold War funding opportunities privileged research in category (2) — and possibly even category (3) — because it could be linked to Cold War imperatives.  Yet, even if some fields did benefit disproportionately, the argument is not clear cut: increases in funding were spread so widely across the board in this period that it is difficult to deny that there was a flourishing of scientific diversity.

Nevertheless, going back to Paul Forman’s “Behind Quantum Electronics” (1987), the claim has been repeatedly made that systematic constraints settled in over even lavishly funded fields like physics.  As I understand it, the way this claim works is that some form of legitimacy was conferred on certain questions or styles of research by their growth and their connection to national interests.  In some cases, such as neoclassical economics, this legitimacy was accompanied by a fundamentality that was ascribed to approaches that might not have otherwise been able to make such a claim.  For historians of the cognitive and social sciences, such preferred intellectual projects bore the intellectual mark of the Cold War because they  employed metaphors connected to military projects, or reflected values prevalent in American society.

I don’t think anybody (except possibly Forman) would claim that there is a normal or proper path for research, or that conclusions can be reached that are built on pristinely appropriate intellectual foundations.  However, for those who argue for a systematic influence of the Cold War, there is a very clear claim that that influence was nevertheless a damaging one.**  Characterizing the position, Solovey is explicit about this point (4):

[T]he notion of Cold War social science conjures up a collection of concerns about the intellectual foundations, professional interests, and political influence of the social sciences….  [N]ot only did the social science enterprise become reconfigured; it also became compromised in various ways.  How so?  Because social scientists, and perhaps especially its leaders, relinquished their duty to speak truth to power.  Because by focusing on research useful to policy elites, they often ignored the unjust and repressive character of American society and its foreign policies.  Because in their pursuit of scientific credentials and instrumental policy relevance, social sciences often advanced scientistic forms of inquiry that disguised their ideological orientation and political biases.

The Cold War influence is damaging because it capitalizes on the apparent generality of research to hide the intellectual and the moral poverty of the social scientific projects so influenced.  But to my mind this argument conflates the categories of research outlined above.

Some social scientific research is very clearly instrumental, such as consumer research, aptitude testing, and, of course, research in support of military and diplomatic goals.  I’ve never been under the impression that this research aspired to any sort of fundamentality, or that it “disguised” its objectives, though researchers doubtless understood their research to have integrity.  There was no sense that, by characterizing their work as science, a commitment to some overarching “truth” was being withheld from those in “power” — those who undertook this research were simply comfortable with “American society and its foreign policies,” the propriety of which were a matter of political commitment, not scientific confirmation or refutation.

Meanwhile, those in category (2) were clearly comfortable receiving funds that linked them to American institutions.  There was, however, no channel by which this work could legitimize or or delegitimize policy, because there was little sense that general knowledge could do so.  This is not to minimize the possible effects of indirect legitimation through biases inherent to the general frameworks being propounded, but these frameworks were understood to stand and fall on their merits, and were open to accusations of systematic bias.

Certainly there are no firm boundaries between category (1) and (2) — individuals often pursued work in both categories.  The area around their intersection is a fine target for institutional and social history of science.  However, proponents of a systematic Cold War influence do not tend to explore the distinction much at all because category (1) research is considered so obviously corrupted, that the epistemological generality claimed by category (2) research is necessary to explain how it possibly could have existed under the name of “science”.  Meanwhile, category (2) research is viewed as so intellectually impoverished that reference to its connection to the evident power and corruption of category (1) research is necessary to explain both its institutional successes and its intellectual failures.

It is this last point that, I think, most motivates opponents of the use of the “Cold War” rubric as an organizing principle for the history of category (2) research, because they are not committed to the assumption that the research was intellectually impoverished; or, in any event, they feel that a stronger, more differentiated explanatory apparatus is required to explain the appeal of the various research programs that flourished in this period.  Solovey identifies David Engerman and Joel Isaac as proponents of such a point of view, noting their belief that “the facile use of the phrase ‘Cold War social science’ might unwittingly lead us to overlook other factors related to the Cold War only tangentially, if at all, but that also deserve our attention as historians.” (5)  This is not, of course, to say that connections between this research and its Cold War context should not be thoroughly explored.  Rather, there is no coherent way in which the various projects of these sciences can be regarded as branches of a central Cold War intellectual framework.  The development of alternative analytical frameworks should be a historiographical priority.  I agree with this position.

In the next post in this series, we get a bit more into specifics.


**Note that the invocation of context as damaging stands, in this case, in contrast to the common claim that studies of scientific contexts are not done because the influence of that context is considered delegitimizing.


1. Charles Day - September 6, 2012

I hear echoes of category 3 when physicists urge Congress to fund this or that big experiment on the ground that failing to do so would imperil US leadership.

Great post, by the way. As someone who was born during the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War was being waged for most of my life.

2. Will Thomas - September 7, 2012

Thanks, Charles — someone’s probably written on this, but I wonder when particle physics went from being blocked with nuclear research, to being a prestige field indicative of global leadership. I’d guess SLAC.

Which reminds me of an audio clip I picked out for NBLA, where Pief Panofsky discusses how SLAC somehow became a Republican project, and turning Hanford production reactors into electricity generators became a Democratic project, and how through horse-trading both ended up happening.

3. Charles Day - September 7, 2012

Today is the 98th anniversary of James Van Allen’s birth. (I know because he’s today’s birthday boy on Physics Today’s Facebook page, which I’m responsible for.) In looking for some biographical details about him, I came across this item in his Wikipedia entry:

May 4, 1959: TIME magazine writers credited Van Allen as the man most responsible for giving the U.S. “a big lead in scientific achievement.” They called Van Allen “a key figure in the cold war’s competition for prestige. …Today he can tip back his head and look at the sky. Beyond its outermost blue are the world-encompassing belts of fierce radiation that bear his name. No human name has ever been given to a more majestic feature of the planet Earth.”

4. Will Thomas - September 8, 2012

Charles — man, don’t even get a historian of the earth sciences started on the politics of the International Geophysical Year (well, actually, Greg would probably give you a succinct version!)

General notes: I should really have pointed out that the “Cold War” rubric question has been in circulation in Cold War history circles for some time now, and is particularly important in intellectual history circles (where the to-be-discussed literature on “modernization theory” is) just beyond the edges of the history of science. See especially Joel Isaac’s “The Human Sciences in Cold War America,” The Historical Journal 50 (2007): 725-746 (paywall), which discusses some slightly earlier arguments about the rubric by Engerman and Nils Gilman, among others.

The latest entry in this actually just came out two days ago: Uncertain Empire: American History and the Ideas of the Cold War, edited by Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell (Oxford UP). It contains a chapter by Phil Mirowski called “A History Best Served Cold”. It looks like the terms of the debate may be crystallizing. I’ll try and get a review copy.

5. Patrick McCray - September 19, 2012

Will, I liked this essay a lot. I think a good deal of writing on Cold War science has gotten stuck in some of the ruts you mention. Also, there is the huge focus on academic-based research with other areas left less examined (Edgerton and Mirowski notwithstanding).

Will Thomas - September 20, 2012

Thanks Patrick, and thanks for dropping by and commenting!

Everyone else: keep an eye out for Patrick’s soon-to-be-released book, The Visioneers, on some of the last century’s most notable champions of techno-utopias.

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