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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.

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Hiatus: Operations Research on the Brain November 17, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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I have a number of things blog-related, some of them fairly exciting, that are cooking at the moment.  That said, site stats indicate there’s not as much interest in new posts as there was a year or two ago.  I don’t know if this is an across-the-board phenomenon with history of science blogs, or if it’s just a reflection of EWP posts’ current pace and subject matter.  But, at any rate, it doesn’t seem like anyone will be terribly disappointed if I put new posts on the back-burner until the new year.

My main reason for doing this is that I have to commit my now-precious spare time to working on my longstanding interest in the intertwined histories of operations research, systems analysis, decision theory, and the proliferation of scientific advisory positions during and after World War II.  Happily, I am now in a position where I have to format my book manuscript, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940-1960, for publication. Coincidentally, I have also recently been named to the History and Traditions Committee of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), which should also take up a little time.  So, in addition to “machine philosophy” and other topics of the moment, look for a number of operations research-related goings-on in 2014.

Did scientist-critics invent operational research? April 30, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques, Operations Research.
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Science in War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1940)

In my last post, one of the things I discussed was how mid-20th-century British critics held that a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of science and its relationship with society was a root cause of a national failure to alleviate social and economic ills, and a cause of national decline more generally.  This diagnosis conveniently cast the critic as just the sort of person who could show the way toward a more prosperous and harmonious society.

Such narratives become more credible if a history of prior critical successes can be constructed.  As I argue in my work on the history of operational research (OR) and scientific advice, critics understood the development of OR during World War II to be just such a success, helping to forge newly close and constructive relations between scientific researchers and military officers.  There is no question that key critics of science-society relations—particularly physicist Patrick Blackett—were important figures in OR.  But, the question of the extent to which critics were responsible for OR is actually a challenging interpretive matter with which I have now struggled for a dozen years, since my undergraduate senior thesis.

The urbane zoologist Solly Zuckerman (1904-1993)—who later became the British government’s first chief scientific adviser, from 1964 to 1971—suggested in his 1978 memoir, From Apes to Warlords, that Tots and Quots, the prestigious dining club that he convened, and which counted a number of scientist-critics among its members, was a major force for reforming relations between science, state, and society, including through the development of OR (370-371, my emphasis):

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Saul Gass (1926-2013), Practitioner-Historian of Operations Research March 23, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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Gass SCOOP 4 Scientific Planning 01I was just passing by the website of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), and was sorry to see that Saul Gass has died.  Gass was a well-known name in the OR and computation community.  He was part of the U. S. Air Force’s Project SCOOP, which, led by George Dantzig (1914-2005), developed the widely used mathematical technique of linear programming (which is also elemental in modern economic theory), and the powerful simplex algorithm.  Later, while working for IBM, he was the manager of the Simulation Group of the Mercury Man-in-Space Program. For more on Gass, see INFORMS’s online memorial, or, better still, essays in the Festschrift for Gass’s 80th birthday (much of which is available via Google Books).

I wanted to mention Gass here, because he is also the type of person who is invaluable to professional historians of science: the practitioner-historian. We historians sometimes set up an “official” or “insider” story as a kind of foil for our work, but if we’re being honest we’ll have to admit we depend greatly on the work of insiders. Among other essays, Gass wrote a handy piece called “The First Linear Programming Shoppe” on Project SCOOP in the truly useful 50th anniversary issue of Operations Research.  He also teamed with Arjang Assad to compile An Annotated Timeline of Operations Research: An Informal History (2005), which is pretty much what it says on the tin (as the British like to say).  Personally, I love it for its copious references.  The two teamed up again to edit the very useful biography collection Profiles in Operations Research (2011).

When I was first starting in on the history of OR, Gass was also very supportive of my work.  I was part of two history sessions at INFORMS Annual Meetings (a very different, much larger beast than HSS), which he was involved with.  That experience actually led to my first publication.  Gass also kindly lent me his personal copies of Project SCOOP reports.  The above image is his copy of the touchstone report, “Scientific Planning of Military Programs” (1948).  Thanks for being a friend to history, Saul.

The Projects of Operations Research and the Ontology of Management June 16, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, Operations Research.
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I’d like to test drive my new critical tool (“discipline & ontology” vs. “projects”) on my new article, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management”.  I think it’s a useful alternative analysis, which would never have made any final, published version of the article, but which nicely brings out the intricacy, subtlety, and importance of the issues at play.

I would argue that the historiography of OR has been dominated by the notion that OR was, essentially, an attempt (in the footsteps of Taylorism) to transform the ontology of military planning and industrial management from one of seasoned leadership into one of “science”.  This shows up in the historiography of wartime OR, but especially in treatments of OR’s postwar adoption of mathematical formalism as its intellectual core.  This last turn has been regarded as a clear departure from any sensible conception of management, and it can therefore only be explained as a kind of fetishization of science.

As I put it in my paper:

Prior accounts of OR’s turn to mathematical specialization have … assumed that the development of a mathematical canon represented a sort of pathology of professionalization, which detached it from the generalist investigations touted by its wartime practitioners. Andrew Abbott [The System of Professions (1988)] has suggested that ‘mathematical preeminence’ was a ‘professional regression’ resulting from a turn toward self-regarding academic virtuosity in OR. Thomas Hughes [Rescuing Prometheus (1998)] has grouped OR with systems engineering as a technical form of expertise that became subjected to typical criticisms of technocratic management and had to be supplemented by more humanistic and democratically inclusive ‘postmodern’ methods. Such accounts … suppose a chronological process of neglect or attainment of some general nontechnical conception of management, which might have granted OR wider and more legitimate authority.

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OR, Management, and Economics: Historiographical Gains, Context, and Questions June 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought, Operations Research.
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A recent picture of Jay Forrester at the MIT Sloan Building (from his MIT web page)

This post continues my provision of supplementary commentary for my Business History Review article, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management at Arthur D. Little and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s(Thomas 2012). In it, I look at a history split between this article and my 2009 article with Lambert Williams, “Epistemologies of Non-Forecasting Simulations, Part I: Industrial Dynamics and Management Pedagogy at MIT” (Thomas and Williams 2009).

When MIT established its new School of Industrial Management (SIM) in the early 1950s, the institute’s administrators sought a signature approach to the subject reflecting its strengths in science and engineering.  This search moved from operations research (OR) to Jay Forrester’s “industrial dynamics”.  In the end, neither approach became the distinguished approach to management that MIT sought, though SIM and OR would both become individually successful within the Institute.

The last part of this post puts this story in the context of the more successful effort of the Carnegie Institute of Technology to develop a high-profile program for its Graduate School of Industrial Administration, which was established around the same time.  Carnegie Tech’s approach to management had strong intellectual connections with academic economics — an intellectual model that soon attracted the field of OR into its orbit.  The equivalent intellectual and institutional movement at MIT was to be found in the ascendancy of its economics department.

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OR vis-à-vis Management in the 1950s: Background May 29, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, Operations Research.
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I have a new article out: William Thomas, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management at Arthur D. Little and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s,” Business History Review 86 (2012): 99–122.  Thanks to the journal’s liberal author’s rights, you can download your very own copy by clicking on the title.  Here’s the abstact:

This article examines the establishment of the field of operations research (OR) at the Arthur D. Little consulting firm and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OR advocates envisioned the field as a new kind of bureaucratic organ dedicated to general studies of business problems, staffed by trained scientists who could employ sophisticated methods if needed. The crux of their promotional strategy was to use their appreciation of general managerial practice to overcome the tensions to be expected from their claims to apply generic scientific methods to nonscientific activities. However, they discounted possible intellectual competition with established professions. This competition ultimately confined OR’s identity to a jurisdiction defined by novel mathematical techniques.


I’d like to try a little experiment with blogging as a complement to official publication.  As all historians of science know, there is much more to science than the sum total of what is contained in published papers, and this, certainly, is no less true of the history of science literature itself.  So, starting with this post, I’d like to use EWP to add some commentary on this article.  I don’t think the article is especially worthy of such treatment, but I think it would be a better world if authors did this sort of thing for everything they wrote.

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The Discordant Image: Metaphors, Mentality, and the Diagnosis of Human Failure February 11, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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Earlier this year, Alex Wellerstein posted at his terrific new blog, Restricted Data, about the use of liquid metaphors to describe how information spreads (it “flows”, “leaks”, etc.), and historians’ analysis of metaphors in general.  It got me thinking again about an image I’ve run across in my archival research that has long fascinated me, but that probably won’t make it into anything I publish:

My fascination with the image arises from the nature of the document in which I found it: “Analysis of Incendiary Phase of Operations, 9-19 March 1945,” a summary report prepared by Maj.-Gen. Curtis LeMay’s staff in the XXI Bomber Command (from Folder 3, Box 37, Papers of Curtis E. LeMay, Library of Congress, Washington, DC).

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Lists of Wartime Operational Research Groups June 24, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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As far as I know, no one has ever assembled a list of all World War II-era operational research groups.  Some of this information is available in published resources; other bits are from archival research.  Bullet points under particular groups represent changes of name.  Dates can be a little fuzzy, since they can refer to when a group was formally approved, or when it started work; or when one or two people arrived at a location, only later to grow and be formally recognized.  I have tried to date things to when work actually began, but have probably not always been consistent in this.  Some form of this list will likely appear in my book, but as a general service in the meantime, here it is:

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McCumber and “Rational Choice Philosophy” June 21, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Operations Research.
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I often say that the first college-level history course I ever took was the history of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany with Peter Hayes at Northwestern University.  However, on Monday I was reminded that my first history course there was really in the philosophy department: History of Philosophy, II: Medieval Philosophy* with John McCumber.  McCumber, who it turns out studies the philosophy of the German tradition, had a piece in the New York Times’ The Stone series called “The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy” which wanders into what has come to be my favorite historical terrain.

In his piece, McCumber begins by citing Hegel to the effect that “history is idea-driven,” and then makes the common historical and critical move of connecting the rise of theories of rational decision with the present dominance of a market-oriented polity, authorized by a selfish ethics implicit to a purportedly neutral analytical framework.  In another move that is itself common enough to have been brilliantly parodied by the Simpsons in 1994, McCumber identifies the RAND Corporation (est. 1946) as the key vector for the translation of intellectual work into the realm of political and social ideas “(aided in the crossing, to be sure, by the novels of another Rand—Ayn)”:

Functionaries at RAND quickly expanded the theory from a tool of social analysis into a set of universal doctrines that we may call ‘rational choice philosophy.’

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