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In Athens on Friday October 29, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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On Friday, 2 November, I will be giving a talk in Athens at the Fifth International Conference of the European Society for the History of Science. The talk will be entitled “The Polemical Construction of an American Style of Scientific Policy Analysis”. For some odd reason I’m listed in the program by my actual first name, Gerald, but it’s me. The talk is part of a small session on “Transnational Economic Science after World War II”, which will also include Tiago Mata and Till Düppe, whom you may know as contributors to the History of Economics Playground blog. Unfortunately, Catherine Herfeld won’t be able to make it.

Albert Wohlstetter (1913-1997)  Image from LIFE photo archive, © Time Inc.

The talk derives from my book manuscript, and it will be about how certain approaches to policy analysis started to be identified as American circa 1960. Part of the answer is that things like “game theory” and “strategic theory” were American. But part of the answer is that it became convenient for certain authors, such as the British physicist and nuclear pundit Patrick Blackett, to portray American policy positions with which they disagreed as the product of a peculiarly abstract “American” style of thinking. This style was often identified with academic economists, and understood to be disengaged from the work of people with practical experience, as well as from any realistic appreciation of human behavior. In subsequent years, the polemical origins of this claim have been forgotten, but historians still deploy it, or a version of it, as a tool of analysis.

However, the polemical tactic was actually recognized as such at the time, particularly by RAND Corporation policy analyst Albert Wohlstetter, who is best known for his 1959 article in Foreign Affairs, “The Delicate Balance of Terror” (RAND memo version here). Whatever one might think of his policy positions, Wohlstetter definitely had a keen critical sense. I would point particularly to an aptly titled 1964 essay, “Sin and Games in America”,* in which he scathingly took apart Blackett’s and others’ polemical claims about the nature and assumptions of game theory, its relationship to policy analysis and, specifically, to his and others’ policy positions.

*In Martin Shubik, ed., Game Theory and Related Approaches to Social Behavior (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1964), pp. 209-225. A similar critique can be found in an article called “Scientists, Seers, and Strategy,” one version of which was published in Foreign Affairs, another version in a 1964 book called Scientists and National Policy-Making

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