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The Benefits of Technology: Productivity as a Measure July 11, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Cui bono?

Cui bono?

This post is more a meditation than a proper review of economists’ and historians’ interest in how to evaluate the benefits of technology. It is prompted mainly by recent articles by Paul Krugman (in the New York Times) and Matthew Yglesias (at vox.com) about a current state of stagnating or falling productivity in spite of new technologies being produced. The measurement of the benefits of technology in terms of productivity may seem somewhat odd, narrow, or sinister to some, so I thought it would be useful to look at some of the history of thought surrounding these issues to show why progressive economists and policy wonks regard it as a useful measure.

The benefits of medical technologies—ethical and cost-benefit quandaries in certain cases aside—are relatively easy to measure in terms of their ability to improve health and the efficacy of treatments. However, the benefits of other technologies, marvellous or disruptive as they may be, are harder to evaluate. Because technologies tend to replace other technologies and to alter prior modes of working and living, technological change tends to create both winners and losers, leaving it difficult to determine whether, on balance, the process is beneficial at all.

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Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 2 June 1, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The real roadmap for postwar science?

The real roadmap for postwar science?

In August 1945, the sense that the war held important lessons for how peacetime science should be organized was dramatically augmented by the atomic bombing of Japan, and the release of the Smyth report, detailing the massive collective scientific and engineering effort that went into producing the bomb.

In an editorial entitled “The Lesson of the Bomb,” published August 19, 1945—a week after the Smyth report’s release—the New York Times immediately spelled out the ramifications.  It observed, “The Western democracies at least have been rudely awakened to what the ‘social impact’ of science means. Books enough have been written on the subject, but it took the bomb to make us realize that the discussions were not just academic.”

The Times noted that scientists had always organized scientific conventions to share their work, This time they were organized to solve an urgent problem. They solved it not in the fifty years expected before the war but in three, and they solved it so rapidly because they were organized and competently directed. Why,” the editorial asked, “should not the same principle be followed in peace?”

The era of demanding a “Manhattan Project” to solve this or that problem had begun.

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Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 1 May 31, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Warren Weaver

Warren Weaver

Via Twitter, Audra Wolfe has called my attention to a passage in intellectual historian David Hollinger’s Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century Intellectual History (1998), in which he discusses the debate over federal policy for the funding of scientific research in the immediate postwar period.

The specific issue at hand is a letter from the Director of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver (1894-1978), to the New York Times, written at the end of August 1945, in which he argues against proponents of the strategic planning of scientific research who had criticized Vannever Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier report.  

According to Hollinger, Weaver argued in his letter that, during the war, (in Hollinger’s words):

the sciences had not been advanced by government coordination at all.  The recently exploded atomic bomb was not a product of government science. Contrary to popular belief, the Organization for [sic, “Office of”] Scientific Research and Development was not a model for doing scientific research; what his office had done during the war was merely to coordinate the “practical application of basic scientific knowledge.”

The statement—particularly the bit about the atomic bomb—is extraordinary, in that it appears to reveal Weaver to be an ideologue for scientific freedom, willing to badly distort the record of activities of the OSRD and the Manhattan Project in order to advance his views.  Hollinger’s claim has been repeated by Jon Agar in his Science in the 20th Century and Beyond (2012).  However, the passage neither accurately reflects Weaver’s actual words, nor, more broadly, the terms of the postwar debate over the planning of science, the reality of “basic” or “pure” science, and the need for scientific freedom.

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Zuckerman on Toulmin on Bernal May 4, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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While preparing my last post, I ran into an interesting passage in Solly Zuckerman’s (1904-1993) memoir, From Apes to Warlords (1978), where he discusses the influence of his former friend J. D. Bernal’s (1901-1971) touchstone work in science criticism, The Social Function of Science (1939). Zuckerman spends a full paragraph talking about the importance ascribed to Bernal’s book by philosopher and historian Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009). Since it is not every day that a former chief scientific adviser to a government comments on the writing of a philosopher/historian of science, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the confluence of ideas that would allow such an event to occur.

Here’s the passage in full:

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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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The links between science studies and British “declinist” discourse April 22, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Rose and Rose

In trying to characterize the roots of contemporary history of science and science studies, one of the crucial features I have hit upon is their presentation of science, and particularly its place in society, as historically and continually beset by a widespread failure to understand the nature of science and the science-society relationship.*  This failure structures narratives which involve various tensions, confusions, and failures of policy and morality, all of which ultimately necessitate the latter-day formulation of an iconoclastic critique of science.  These narratives, in turn, have the effect of inflating the apparent present-day novelty and cogency of these professions’ central critical insights.

Now, this has long been an interesting issue for me, partially because it actually mirrors a major point in my work on the history of operations research, scientific advising, systems analysis, and related developments in World War II and after.  These developments were often cast as representing a realignment (or potential realignment) of the relationship between “science” and “the state”. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the purported need for such a realignment is a characteristic feature of narratives of British national “decline,” which explain that decline at least partially in terms of a national failure to appreciate and take proper advantage of science.  C. P. Snow’s 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution is a well-known manifestation of this narrative, but it was widespread before and after Snow’s contribution.

A big question that has weighed on me is whether that older discourse is directly related to the contemporary one.  Recently, while working on the conclusion of my book, I believe I found what may be a “golden spike” linking the two discourses buried in radical British science journalist J. G. Crowther’s (1899-1983) Science in Modern Society (1967, in which operational research features prominently) and Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s Science and Society (1969).

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Bernard Lovell: An Archival Anecdote August 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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The death of physicist Sir Bernard Lovell on August 6th at the age of 98 has been widely reported.  I thought I would mark his passing with an anecdote about some correspondence by and about him, which I ran across in December 2000 at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) on my first ever archive trip.*

To set the scene a bit, at the time I was still an undergrad, and was impressed by the wonderful circular reading room at the IWM situated right beneath the building’s cupola, and by having to do things like acquire permission from someone named Noble Frankland to see the Sir Henry Tizard papers there.  (And I didn’t even know this was a former site of Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam!)   I was trying to come to grips with the very loaded topic of “operational research” (OR).  I gathered that wartime OR had to do with the “coordination” of research with the military’s “operational” goals, but I didn’t have a very good sense of how coordination actually happened in bureaucracies, or the complicated politics of the subject.

It turns out most people don’t, but I was particularly ill-informed.  I distinctly remember telling the staff member escorting me to the reading room that I was interested in “why Britain didn’t develop a military-industrial complex as America did”.  I was duly informed it was because there was no money.  That wasn’t exactly what I meant — what I had in mind, but couldn’t express, was why British R&D hadn’t been more strongly coordinated with military planning as it had been in America even to a fault: RAND, McNamara, and all that.  That position was also wrong-headed in its own way.  I did not realize that I was caught up in deep tropes populating the rhetoric of science in Britain, which were designed to explain its failures (as well as America’s successes and pathologies).  It was believable, though, because so much evidence, including a letter written by a young Lovell, seemed to corroborate Britain’s difficulties coordinating its scientific resources — I did not appreciate that he and others were bearers of the rhetorical tradition that had already shaped my thinking.

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Minor Reform and Epochal Narrative: Wartime Coordination of Research with Practical Needs May 23, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research, Technocracy in the UK.
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I am currently working more-or-less full time again on my book, which is about what I am now calling the “sciences of policy” (operations research, management science, systems analysis, decision theory….). But, while I was doing the spade work for my new project on experts in and around the British state (focusing initially on agricultural and food expertise), I found some interesting parallels between my old and new projects. I thought one of these parallels might make for an interesting post, since I am unlikely to put it into print anywhere else in the near future.

Some of the early parts of my book deal with what, in my present draft, I characterize as “a series of important, but ultimately minor bureaucratic reforms proposed by a small group of scientists and engineers between 1939 and 1941.” These reforms were the establishment of scientific advisory posts and “operational research” (OR) teams in the British Army’s Anti-Aircraft Command, the Air Ministry, and the Royal Air Force.

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The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 1 April 12, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, Ideology of Science.
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The main source for my last post, Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), is a very good example of a post-Marxist social history of science.  The historiographical tradition of the social history of science will benefit from some reflection, because it has been eclipsed for a quarter century, though some of its basic strategies remain phenomenally influential.  The key component, now largely missing, is the sustained analysis of how the direction of scientific research programs align with their social and economic milieu (though, of course, sources of patronage remain a subject of interest).

Unsurprisingly, Marxism is a key methodological source for the social history of science.  Traditionally, Marxist history of science maintained a narrow conceptual gap between general scientific inquiry and research related to technological development and industrial production.  Marxist analysts — the crystallographer and intellectual J. D. Bernal (1901-1971) being a prime example — usually emphasized the historical connection between scientific research and capitalist and militaristic interests.  Generally, they would not deny the importance of research pursued for intellectual interest, but they would view a self-imposed isolation of this research to be a bourgeois conceit.  Eager to point out that fundamental advances and practical problems often feed off each other, Marxists urged that scientists should take an active, conscious interest in social and political problems.

In his analysis of the history of the RI, Berman retains the Marxist emphasis in class interest, using a prosopographical analysis of the RI’s proprietors to convincingly chart a shift from an early dominance by the agenda of landed interests to a post-1815 dominance by a reform-minded class of business, legal, and medical professionals.  (more…)

Clarke on Research and Science in Prewar Britain July 20, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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Coming off this blog’s discussion of Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in 19th-Century America,” I would next like to look at Sabine Clarke’s “Pure Science with a Practical Aim: The Meanings of Fundamental Research in Britain, circa 1916-1950” (abstract + paywall) from the most recent Isis.

Lucier’s piece delineated important distinctions and connections between 19th-century American and British vocabularies of science, with an attendant examination of important issues to which the American lexicon was applied.  Reading that work, I found myself not really willing to believe that the subject matter had not been previously parsed that way, and am still half expecting someone to pop up with some obvious reference that tells all about it — it’s really useful stuff.

Clarke’s piece seems to offer more of a clarification of certain points of vocabulary, rather than an important new delineation of historical ideas, but it is successful in the task it sets out to accomplish.  The actual ideas discussed — the relationship between “research” (as in “research and development”) and “science” — should already be familiar to those with a serious interest in the relationship between scientific research and technological development in the industrial era.  What is of primary interest here is the search for appropriate language to describe this relationship. (more…)