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The Challenges and Opportunities of Policy Analysis History: Some Notions February 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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Historian of economics Beatrice Cherrier has asked what a history of policy analysis might look like. She quite reasonably notes that, as a faculty member at the Centre de Researche en Économie et Management at Rennes, she wants her “students to know why and how the theories, tools and practices they will later use on a daily basis were conceived and spread, and a good 80% of them will participate in a policy evaluation in the next 10 years.”

cover_5_2upI suspect we will be best served in answering this call if we admit the poverty of our current historical knowledge. We have a number of useful historical studies of various bits of policy analysis, and many more dislocated fragments of such a history are also to be found in the practitioner literature. However, I do not think we can even, at this stage, outline what a synthetic history would look like.

I arrive at this conclusion out of lessons learned while researching and writing my book, Rational Action, which is due out in a couple of months (and which I will not attempt to dissuade you from pre-ordering). The book uses 300 pages of text to outline the history of a cluster of influential fields—primarily operations research/management science (OR/MS), systems analysis, and decision theory—that developed in the middle of the twentieth century.

One of the key lessons learned is that many, including most historians, have been too quick to assume that they understood the basic outlines of the story as having primarily to do with these sciences’ attempts to apply “scientific” methodology to the realm of policy. Conceived in this way, the history becomes one of various attempts to define what constitutes a properly scientific approach, and of various attempts to command authority through the application of such an approach. As a consequence, the histories of very different fields become blurred together as part of a general mid-twentieth-century movement to make politics and society more scientific.


Book Review: Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers February 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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McCray, Visioneers

I have a new book review out in Technology & Culture of Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton University Press, 2012). Access the review here. If you can’t get by the paywall, the “excerpt” constitutes virtually the entire review.

The only section excluded is my suggestion of a number of books that complement McCray’s history. The Visioneers is a very able contribution to a growing historiography of activities and ideas that have existed at the edge of mainstream science and technology, often flitting between legitimate, even groundbreaking work, and sheer fantasy. While the book revolves around Gerard O’Neill’s prospective studies of viable space colonies, and K. Eric Drexler’s interest in the development of molecular machines, it is really about a broad, multifaceted culture of technological enthusiasm, which McCray also explores through his Leaping Robot blog. If you are not aware of the blog, please have a look.

Other entries in this historiography might include:

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006)

Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches from Another Future (2010)

Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011)

Helge Kragh’s Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology (2011 – see my Centaurus review)

David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011), and

Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (2012).

If you have additional suggestions, please drop them in the comments.

Sutton vs. Jacob: Was John Desaguliers a Prophet of Industrialization? February 1, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Jacob and Stewart, Practical MatterIt’s a serious question. We come to it from my earlier look at Simon Schaffer’s “Enlightened Automata” (1999), in which he claimed that “Some historians still deny that natural philosophies ‘fed the fires of the industrial revolution.’ Others more convincingly indicate the intimate connections between the machinery of natural philosophers’ concerns and that of the new entrepreneurs and projects.” He specifically identified Geoffrey Sutton in the first camp, and Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart in the second.

Since the 1980s Jacob and Stewart have both consistently argued that the intellectual development of the sciences, the technical development of machines, and the economic development of industry were closely intertwined phenomena, particularly in Britain where the Industrial Revolution commenced. In 2004 they jointly published Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687–1851, which offered an overview of their general argument. Jacob’s new book, The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850 continues her multi-decadal mission.

Sutton, Science for a Polite SocietyGeoffrey Sutton’s Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment was published in 1995, but it is based on a dissertation he finished at Princeton in 1982. By the time it came out, Sutton was already operating on the fringes of academic history, and would not (to the best of my knowledge) produce further research.

Sutton allowed, “Enlightened thinkers believed that the application of the methods and techniques of science theory could reform political and economic thought, just as the applied fruits of scientific physics and chemistry could improve the human condition” (5). But the focus of his book was on how natural philosophical demonstration and disputation had their primary influence in polite, rather than practical, environments in 17th and 18th-century France.

There is no necessary conflict between at least the rudiments of the Jacob-Stewart and Sutton points of view. It is perfectly possible for the sciences to have been integrated into both practical and polite cultures. And, in fact, if we follow Schaffer’s specific citation in Sutton, we find that, in this instance, we are actually dealing with a more specific disagreement concerning how best to interpret the significance of certain lectures offered by John Desaguliers (1683–1744).

However, as we will see, this disagreement is one that points to larger historiographical problems.


Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 2: Divided Opinion on the Political Economic Importance of Enlightenment Intellectual Culture January 25, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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At the end of Pt. 1, I suggested that, in positing, respectively, the weakness and the strength of Enlightenment philosophers in pre-industrial 18th-century economic culture, Andre Wakefield and Simon Schaffer were reaching contrary historical conclusions using the same historiographical gambit. I would like to begin Pt. 2 by expanding on this point.

There is a prominent, if usually implicit, historiographical concept, which holds that injustice is allowed to occur because the cultures subject to that injustice are made invisible. Historiography, therefore, becomes a two-fold enterprise: it identifies forces of concealment, and restores visibility to hidden cultures. Labor culture, of course, has long been one such beneficiary of historians’ rescue efforts. Meanwhile, “science” (or some related concept) has often been considered a force of concealment, because it presents pictures that seem intellectually authoritative or “natural,” while failing to disclose its own biases. Both Wakefield and Schaffer apply this concept to the links between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, albeit in different ways.


Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 1: The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution Chain January 22, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post discusses a new article: Andre Wakefield’s “Butterfield’s Nightmare: The History of Science as Disney History,” History and Technology (2014).

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

In the piece Wakefield opposes an instance of intellectualist genesis in technological and economic history, i.e., the idea that technical and economic phenomena are rooted in the realm of elite ideas. Specifically, Wakefield objects to authors who posit a “causal series” linking the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Even more specifically, he regards this narrative as responsible for serial anachronistic readings of the concept of “oeconomy” in 18th-century philosophy (a subject I’m very interested in), and, consequently of that philosophy’s place in the development of economic and political culture.



More specifically still, Wakefield’s primary targets are the concepts of the “industrial Enlightenment,” as used by economic historian Joel Mokyr, and the “economic Enlightenment,” as used by Marcus Popplow. Wakefield also targets the work of Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart as abetting the development of the narrative he opposes.

Unfortunately, Wakefield only spends four paragraphs (pp. 10–12) on the subject of “oeconomy,” and only a few more on Mokyr, Popplow, and the question of what varieties of “Enlightenment” we might legitimately speak. The bulk of Wakefield’s essay is divided between contemplation of the pathological and justifiable uses of anachronism in historiography, and an enjoyably sarcastic diagnosis and etiology of his opponents’ positions.

Although I sort of agree with him, I do believe Wakefield’s polemics conceal a more difficult historiographical problem than he supposes.


Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 6: The Ideology of Charles Babbage January 11, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in History of Economic Thought, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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We continue the “Machine Philosophy” series with Schaffer’s examination in two essays of the work and thought of mathematician Charles Babbage (1791–1871):

1) “Babbage’s Intelligence: Calculating Engines and the Factory System,” Critical Inquiry 21 (1994): 203-227. [BI]

2) “Babbage’s Dancer and the Impresarios of Mechanism,” in Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention, edited by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996). Reproduced here. [BD]

From Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosophy (1864)

From Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864)

These essays were published early on in Schaffer’s concern with “machine philosophy,” but they depict the chronological culmination of that philosophy’s ideological potential. In Schaffer’s telling, Babbage’s “lifelong campaign for the rationalization of the world” (BD, 53) was manifested in 1) his mechanization of not simply physical, but mental labor through his calculating engines; 2) his thinking concerning the factory system of manufactures, which, by the time he worked, was deep into its ascendancy in the British economy; and 3) his “Ninth Bridgewater Treatise” on the nature of God and miracles.


“Decisions and Dynamics”: An Ad Hoc Exploration of Intellectual and Institutional History January 3, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought.
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Weintraub, MIT and American Economics

This post offers some background information on my new paper, “Decisions and Dynamics: Postwar Theoretical Problems and the MIT Style of Economics.”

The 2013 “MIT and the Transformation of American Economics” conference was one of those conferences where the invitation arrives years before the event. When I agreed to attend, I thought I would just offer a complement to the conference’s focus on MIT economics with a discussion of the early history of operations research at MIT, a subject I already knew a lot about.

What I didn’t realize until the run-up to the conference was that it was part of the annual series, which results in the publication of the annual supplementary volume to the journal History of Political Economy. I had already published pretty much all my material on MIT in my 2009 Science in Context article on Jay Forrester’s industrial dynamics, and in my 2012 Business History Review article on OR at MIT and Arthur D. Little. So, that scuppered my plans for an easy recycling job.

The obvious direction in which to go was to discuss the intellectual relationship between economics and operations research. The problem with this plan was that, while there are many interesting things to say about that relationship, the relationship at MIT was pretty thin throughout the 1950s, the period I’ve studied carefully. At this point I didn’t have the time to try and suss out any subsequent relationship (if it was even substantial) through the publications record, nor, being based in London at the time, did I have much chance to do new archival research.

What did seem like a good opportunity was to engage with the thinking of the only historian to publish on the relationship between OR and economics, Phil Mirowski.


The “MIT and the Transformation of American Economics” Conference and Maturation in the the Historiography of Economic Thought December 29, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought.
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Paul Samuelson (1915–2009), doyen of MIT economics

Paul Samuelson (1915–2009), doyen of MIT economics

I have a new article out, “Decisions and Dynamics: Postwar Theoretical Problems and the MIT Style of Economics,” in the 2014 annual supplement to History of Political Economy on MIT and the Transformation of American Economics. Following tradition, I’ll talk a little bit about the thinking behind the article in a separate post. However, I would like to start with a few words about the 2013 conference that the supplement was based on.

In short, it was almost certainly the best conference I have attended. To understand why, it will be useful to understand the peculiarities of the development of the field of the history of economic thought (HET), and how it seems to be reaching a new state of maturity.

For some time now HET has been having something of an identity crisis. Traditionally strongly affiliated with economics departments, HET, even more so than economic history, has had problems maintaining its status within the economics profession. Concurrently, HET has moved away methodologically from exegesis on the economic canon (“What did Smith/Keynes mean when they wrote X?”), and more toward something people working in the history of science would be familiar and comfortable with.


A Tale of Two Syllabi: The Grad School Origins of Ether Wave Propaganda December 27, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Chris Donohue and I recently responded to some questions posed by the animateurs of the Carnet Zilsel blog (part 1, part 2). Subjects included the origins of Ether Wave Propaganda, the virtues of “heuristic” blogging, the relations between STS and the history of science, and the forms that historiographical discussions do and do not take. And, on January 1, this blog will have existed for seven years, which occasions some reflection.

Also, having finished work on my book, I’ve been bringing order to my file cabinet, and came across some old grad school syllabi. In the Carnet Zilsel interview I described the origins of EWP as a reaction to the tendency of the professional literature to “fragmentation.” However, the methodological reflection that has characterized this blog, particularly up to 2012, is certainly also of a piece with the kinds of discussions that we had in grad school, in my case in the Harvard History of Science department.

I’d like to explore this continuity with a discussion of two syllabi of particular interest:

History of Science 200: Methods of Research in the History of Science, taught by Everett Mendelsohn in the fall of 2002, and required for all first-year students.

History of Science 255: Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, taught by Steven Shapin in the spring of 2004


Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 5b: Automata and the Enlightenment December 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999).

As detailed in previous posts, Schaffer’s interest in 18th-century automata in this piece is mainly a means of making larger points about the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and its links to an emerging economic order of industrialism and managerialism. In doing so, he contributes an interpretive gloss that joins an existing general historiography of Enlightenment ideology, with a historiography of the automaton creations of such figures as Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782), Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–1790), and John-Joseph Merlin (1735–1803). This post discusses this second facet of the history.

For Schaffer, the key questions are: 1) what interests did automata engage, allowing them to proliferate as objects of display and fascination? and 2) in what ways did they speak to the concerns of philosophers and other commentators of the period, making them into salient metaphors and objects of intellectual reflection?