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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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rational_life

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:

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“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.

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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.

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The Search for a Mature View of Industrial Research July 8, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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At the moment there is an interesting — if scattered — set of arguments about, proffered by senior historians, concerning what an appropriately mature handling of industrial research might look like.

In his essay “Time, Money, and History” (pdf, free) in the latest Isis, my colleague David Edgerton refers to the influence of the “spontaneous economics of academic research scientists,” which unduly privileges discussions of the importance of university-based research amid the much wider world of R&D, while also fixating on a more longstanding concern with how patronage might influence the course of research work (“filthy lucre”).  Most of the concerns still regularly expressed about the funding, independence, and broader importance of academic research were, by the 1960s, already widely circulated by purveyors of this spontaneous economics.

Amid particular ’60s-era concerns that science was being perverted by tighter connections to national defense and the economy, and stifled by more structured administration, some historians and sociologists of science were eager to dispel oft-voiced beliefs that science’s strange, new institutional situation represented a fundamental change in how science was done.  On this blog we have seen how Robert Merton was eager to argue that the competitive behaviors chronicled in James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968) were a longstanding feature of science, and not some twentieth-century pathology.  Similarly, in their 2007 essay, “The Commercialization of Science and the Response of STS,”1 Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent detect a nothing-new-to-see-here attitude as early as a 1960 commentary by Thomas Kuhn highlighting the history of the science-technology relation.

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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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Strangers and Confidants January 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Much tactile history of science is basically an attempt to get as close to past scientific practices and technical knowledge as possible, so as to transcend the lack of verbalization of tacit knowledge, techniques, material culture, and experience, which we fail to inherit through the textual record alone. Intriguingly, although tactile history is very much the opposite of “playing the stranger”, these motivations are quite similar to those given for treating science with an anthropological remove.

Perhaps our clearest articulation for an anthropological approach is to be found in Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s classic study of a Salk Institute laboratory, Laboratory Life (1979). In their introduction, they make their case for working in an anthropological mode, and are quite clear that this mode is particularly warranted on account of the social fact of the peculiar intellectual power of science, which threatens to subsume any analysis of its culture (29–30, their emphasis on “not”, mine on the last clause):

We take the apparent superiority of the members of our laboratory in technical matters to be insignificant, in the sense that we do not regard prior cognition (or in the case of an ex-participant, prior socialisation) as a necessary prerequisite for understanding scientists’ work. This is similar to an anthropologist’s refusal to bow before the knowledge of a primitive sorcerer. For us, the dangers of ‘going native’ outweigh the possible advantages of ease of access and rapid establishment of rapport with participants. Scientists in our laboratory constitute a tribe whose daily manipulation and production of objects is in danger of being misunderstood, if accorded the high status with which its outputs are sometimes greeted by the outside world. There are, as far as we know, no a priori reasons for supposing that scientists’ practice is any more rational than that of outsiders. We shall therefore attempt to make the activities of the laboratory seem as strange as possible in order not to take too much for granted. 

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The Nineteenth Century Problem August 15, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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The universal historian Henry T. Buckle (1821-1862) was last subject of a serious scholarly monograph in 1958.  This is the fate of any number of nineteenth-century intellectuals.   The first reason for the disappearance of these writers has been the inability to connect them to the catastrophic events of the twentieth century: the World Wars, National Socialism, the deradicalization of the European right after Nuremberg, the flight of the Marxist intellectuals, and so on.   Second, the nineteenth century has been the province of sociologists and literary scholars.  Such attention continues to be selective, judging from the ceaseless publications on the canonical sociologists: springtime for Weber, and winter for Gobineau and Bagehot.

Third, ignoring the nineteenth century allows anthropologists to get on with their own work.  Fourth, and finally, while some nineteenth century economists get attention — Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) has been accumulating more slim volumes as the months go by — the impression I get from some not so cursory reading of the literature is that the with the exception of the proponents of “evolutionary” and “heterodox” economics, philosophers of economics, and Philip Mirowski, it’s Smith, Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Mises, or monograph wilderness.  (more…)

Margaret Schabas on the Concept of Nature in Economic Thought June 6, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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In my first post on the need for historical studies of the relationship between scientific and economic thought, I was greatly remiss in not discussing a scholar who has done a great deal to develop and organize work in exactly this area: Margaret Schabas of the UBC philosophy department.  Thankfully, a quick reference by Tiago Mata over at History of Economics Playground set me aright.  For a first pass through the existing literature, I’d like to take a look at her book, The Natural Origins of Economics (2005).

The book is a critical-intellectual history.  As an intellectual history, it sticks to an analysis of the published works of (mainly) canonical authors.  Where a straight intellectual history might recount the arguments that historical authors explicitly made, critical-intellectual histories draw out continuities and breaks over time in authors’ lines and methods of argumentation.  Like many intellectual historians, Schabas is mindful of detailed arguments in the secondary literature, and does a good job of acknowledging, consolidating, communicating, and building on the gains of that literature.

Schabas argues that where 18th-century philosophers of political economy understood their subject to connect deeply to nature and natural philosophy, economics began to explicitly frame itself as a science of peculiarly social phenomena following John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1848), the rise of the idea of “the economy” as an object of study, and the rise of neoclassical economics in the late-19th century.

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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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Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 2 March 9, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Part 1 of this post argued that the historical relations between natural scientific and economic thought require additional attention.  It suggested that in the Enlightenment period both were subsumed within the epistemology of philosophical systems-building and the generic argumentative structure of “economy”.  Although David Hume’s theory of morals was not economics, per se, in a separate post I used his example to demonstrate how the argumentative construction of a social economy had to face similar intellectual problems as chemistry, botany, and (what was thought of as) physics.

Part 2 emphasizes the importance of logical or argumentative space in economic thought, as exemplified by — but by no means limited to — mathematical inquiry.  I want to argue that economics continued to adhere to the argumentative strategy of system-building familiar from 18th-century natural and political philosophy.  Meanwhile, though, most natural sciences took a separate path toward argumentative rigor applied to a tightly constrained space of argumentation, such as that defined by laboratory phenomena.  Political economists were deeply influenced by the natural sciences’ newly enhanced commitment to rigor, but interpreted that commitment in novel ways within the relatively unconstrained argumentative space of political economy.

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