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“The Rational Life”: Issues in Quote Truncation March 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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The specter of rationalism haunts the historiographies of the Cold War-era social sciences, of mid-twentieth-century policy analysis, and, particularly, of the RAND Corporation. The basic idea is that there existed after World War II a belief that scientific method, new technology, logical analysis, and quantitative measurement could be used to find solutions to difficult problems of national policy. While it is generally taken that this belief was widespread within institutions of elite learning, it is regarded as having been particularly concentrated at RAND. And, as a prominent military contractor, RAND is taken to have been a crucial vector for the transmission of this rationalism from the realm of ideas into the corridors of American power.

One compelling illustration of this rationalism has been the opening address given by mathematician Warren Weaver, director of the natural sciences programs at the influential Rockefeller Foundation, at a September 1947 conference sponsored by RAND to recruit social scientists. In his address, Weaver remarked on his belief that the people at the conference were all united in their commitment to what he called “the rational life.”

Journalist Fred Kaplan was the first to quote this line in his 1983 book on American nuclear strategic thought, The Wizards of Armageddon:


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.

Useful Portraits in the Mid-Century Social Sciences December 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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cwssMy meditation on whether there is a “whig” narrative permeating the historiography of the social sciences may give the impression that I have a fundamental objection to the Cold War Social Science (CWSS) volume. In fact, I like the book a great deal. Rather, as someone who is probably among the top 20 people worldwide with practical use for the book, thinking about a “whig” narrative helps me articulate what aspects of it are the most useful.

Having worked for some time in the history of the related subjects of operations research, systems analysis, and decision theory, I have become intimately familiar with the argumentative tropes that permeate their historiography, and which overlap with the ones surrounding the social sciences of the Cold War era. These include the supposed historical existence of: a faith in science, a particular authority attributed to formalized knowledge, and a systematic discounting of tradition and cultural peculiarity.

Even if I didn’t think these tropes were seriously misleading (though I do), the simple repetition of them in different contexts would not be very helpful to me. Locating the tropes within a general narrative allows me to identify what those tropes would look like in a different segment of the narrative (say, a post-1970 history, or the history of a different field), and thus what things I “already know,” even if the precise details are foreign to me. For example, I am not especially well versed in the history of psychology, but if the stories historians tell me about it conform to the general narrative I already know, then they are not really telling me much that is useful beyond making me aware of perhaps a new proper name or two, which I will probably promptly forget. By this criterion, a good portion of CWSS is not especially useful.

But much of it is. Here I will briefly discuss what I personally found to be the most useful pieces in the volume.


Are the social sciences concerned with the definition of social and political ontologies? December 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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cwssIt is consistent with a new whig history of the social sciences to suppose that, in a former era, these sciences attempted to define the ontologies of aspects of society through the application of scientific method. For example, theories of modernization defined the nature of the modern liberal society, as well as the path that “traditional” society (another ontology) would need to take to transition to a state of modernity. Such acts of definition, in turn, had the capacity to affect politics and social relations, because, historically, the act of scientific definition could privilege and reify ontologies on account of the cultural authority attributed to science at that time.

Now, however (according to this narrative), we have come to see the futility of such efforts. Instead, the object is not to define ontology, but to ascertain how ontologies are defined from culture to culture, including in the scientific culture of our social scientific ancestors. Accordingly, Cold War Social Science is divided into three sections, labeled “Knowledge Production”, “Liberal Democracy”, and “Human Nature”. The last two sections revolve around two categories of ontologies seen as being at play. The first section revolves arund the means that the social sciences used to define these ontologies, i.e., to produce “knowledge” about them.


Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 3 November 17, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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In previous posts, I have noted characteristics historians attribute to Cold War-era social science, and have posited that the historiography of the social sciences often follows a “whig” structure. This narrative structure builds history around the social sciences’ move away from inappropriate frameworks. These frameworks privileged the sciences’ own cultural perspective, and projected it onto, and proselytized it to, other cultures by means of the sciences’ intellectual and political influence. The whig structure also (implicitly or explicitly) takes the trend of history to move toward a more passive or dialogical social scientific framework pioneered by cultural anthropologists.

The context of “Cold War America” is critical to this narrative, because it provides 1) a particular “liberal” or “modernist” cultural perspective that informed the work of the period, 2) the project of strengthening and defending liberal society at home and abroad—through a) the development of scientific theories of the nature of modern, liberal, and illiberal society, and b) the instrumental use of social science in augmenting military and diplomatic power—and, accordingly, 3) funding.

Lyndon Johnson and adviser (and modernization theorist) Walt Rostow discussing Vietnam

The trouble with this narrative structure is that it tends to constrain historical analysis so that it produces stories that conform to it. At the same time, it would be difficult to sustain such narratives if the record did not at least bear some resemblance to it. The place where the record most clearly resembles this narrative is in a branch of sociology and political science known as “modernization theory”.


Book Review: David Cassidy’s Short History of Physics in the American Century November 10, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Isis 103 (September 2012): 614-615.

© 2012 by The History of Science Society, and reprinted here according to the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press.  In-text links have been added by the author, and were not included in the original text.

David C. Cassidy. A Short History of Physics in the American Century. (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine.) 211 pp., tables, app., index. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. $29.95 (cloth).

William Thomas

David Cassidy styles this book “a very brief introductory synthesis of the history of twentieth-century American physics for students and the general public.” As such, it “is not intended to offer a new analysis of that history or to argue a newly constructed thesis.” Nor does it “drift far from the standard, often currently definitive literature on its subject—as far as that literature goes” (p. 5).


Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 1 September 22, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This post continues our examination of Cold War Social Science, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens.

One issue to look out for when addressing the history of the social sciences — and intellectual history more generally — is that scholars are apt to see themselves as in dialogue with the events about which they are writing.  As with scientists writing about their own disciplinary past, there is a felt need either to credit the past as prologue, or to distance oneself from the folly of one’s predecessors.  Such, of course, are the roots of whig history.

The implicit aim of a new whig history, which shapes much intellectual and social science historiography is, in broad strokes, to explain how anthropologists and their intellectual allies bested academic competitors, and can now lead society away from a myopic modernism toward a more harmonious, genuinely cosmopolitan future.

This narrative is fairly similar to the original Whig narrative diagnosed by Herbert Butterfield, which took history to progress away from authoritarianism to political, economic, and religious liberalism. However, the whiggishness of the present narrative can be difficult to acknowledge, because the phenomenon of whig history is actually incorporated within the narrative as an intellectual pathology arising from the same teleological modernism being cast as outdated.  It is counterintuitive that the narrative could be whiggish, because whiggism is a declared enemy of the narrative.


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.


Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.


Book Review: Science for Welfare and Warfare: Technology and State Initiative in Cold War Sweden, ed. Per Lundin, Niklas Stenlås, and Johan Gribbe January 25, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Economic History Review 65 (2012): 398–399.  © 2012 The Economic History Society.

Per Lundin, Niklas Stenlås, and Johan Gribbe, eds., Science for welfare and warfare: technology and state initiative in Cold War Sweden (Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2010. Pp. vi + 314. 3 figs. 26 illus. 6 plates. 1 tab. ISBN 9780881354256 Hbk. £60.95/$49.95)

In the 1950s a nation of seven million people possessed the world’s fourth-largest air force. This fact is a particularly remarkable manifestation of Sweden’s postwar status as a technological power disproportionate to its size. Given the importance ascribed to technology as means of improving nations’ competitiveness, the historical strategies of the Swedish state and industry should be of considerable interest. This volume provides a valuable service by presenting original research into some of these strategies. In doing so, it also builds on and references a substantial existing literature, much of which is only available in Swedish.