Paul Erickson, Judy L. Klein, Lorraine Daston, Rebecca Lemov, Thomas Sturm, Michael D. Gordin, How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind. The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality, Chicago (Ill.), University of Chicago Press, 2013

Is rationality as clean and well-defined concept, such as a system of axioms, or rather a sticky syrup, like a “bowl of molasses”? Philosophers, at least within the analytic tradition, usually opt for axiomatic definitions and a paradigmatic illustration is, for instance, expected utility theory (EUT). Established by von Neumann and Morgenstern in 1947, and expanded later by Savage in 1954, it quickly became the paradigm for the analysis of decisions between uncertain alternatives, until the accumulation of experimental anomalies forced economists to search for alternatives –although none has completely displaced it, as of today. The normative appeal of EUT (as a warrant of consistency in our decisions) still captivates philosophers, but all this anomalies have forced us to rethink whether there is some axiomatic unity in our rational choices or whether our decisions are like molasses and EUT is just one bowl containing some.
Herbert Simon made the remark about the bowl of molasses commenting on how “the irrational is the boundary of the rational” (115). As I read it, How reason almost lost its mind(CWR from now on) is a book about such boundaries: the concepts that came to define rationality among the social scientists around the 1950s and 1960s would not have hold together were it not for the context (the bowl) provided by the Cold War.
The ideal type of Cold War Rationality (3-4) would be a formal algorithm providing mechanically the best solution for a given problem. These algorithms would originate in the analytical decomposition of the actions of a person of “seasoned experience and proven judgment” (43), so that anyone could implement such sets of rules and obtain the same success. Human calculators, computing variables for astronomers in many 19th and 20th century observatories, provide a paradigm of the rationality that Cold War would generalize, thanks mostly to the success of algorithms in foundational research on the paradoxes of set theory. Ideas then flew from the more abstract regions of mathematics to the social sciences, in a process accelerated by the II World War and its posterity.
One major issue in the historiography of rational choice theory is to what extent it was shaped by such context: for instance, is it something more than a formal rendition of the neoliberal ideology that emerged after the war? In this case, we may wonder whether the rules defining rationality were somehow tainted by their military uses. The answer of CWR seems mostly negative. For a start, Cold War Rationality is something more than a simple combination of decision and game theory. Bounded rationality was just as much a Cold War product. The organization of the airlift that would provide basic supplies to Berlin during the Soviet blockade started a research agenda on military management that ultimately led Herbert Simon to defend the necessity of non-optimizing decision rules. The limitations of information and computing power that plagued such projects left no alternative.
Even further from rational choice standards, but equally part of Cold War rationality was Charles Osgood’s GRIT, the acronym for “graduated and reciprocated initiatives for tension reduction”. Osgood, a psychologist, studied strategies for de-escalating conflicts –paradigmatically, in the nuclear arms race. Osgood did not establish his decision rules on formal grounds and, as CWR point out, they were difficult to test experimentally. But nonetheless they had the algorithmic form distinctive of the era. And there is even more to Cold War rationality. Rules did not only emerge in theoretical contexts as a solution to a given problem, be it formal or not. There was also empirical research on how rules emerged, via the analysis of “situations”. These were small group interactions placed in a context that could be externally controlled and observed: e.g., a negotiation in a room with microphones and one-way mirrors, as the one used by Robert Bales at the Harvard Laboratory of Social Relations in the 1950s. Decomposing the interaction into its minimal elements and coding how often they featured would allow social scientists to engineer future exchanges so that they yielded the desired outcomes.
If Cold War rationality is so diverse (and showing it is a major contribution of this book), we may well grant that its content was not constrained by one single agenda. But then what brings all these different algorithms together under the umbrella of rationality? The bowl containing this molasses would have been the military demand for procedures that could handle the complexity of Cold War issues –from nuclear strategies to logistics and negotiation processes. Military budgets funded research according to their needs, independently of any disciplinary boundary. The RAND Corporation was probably the most successful hotbed of Cold War rationality, but we can find research programs tied to the military in University departments all over the United States.
According to CWR, the threat of a nuclear conflictwas powerful enough to break through the different paradigms then available for the study of decision making and bring them into a real debate. Had it not been for the Cold War, the topic might have been studied along more conventional disciplinary paths, with a different level of mutual engagement.Just as it happened after the end of the Cold War. When the bowl of military demand cracked, the molasses of rationality spilled in a plethora of experiments that showed a plurality of decision rules at work (namely, heuristics and biases), more or less deviant regarding formal standards of rational choice.
CWR shows, in sum, that Cold War rationality was more diverse than rational choice theory and that the one in the many, bringing together all such diversity, was the nuclear threat providing the context. Both points are carefully argued and I have learnt a great deal with this volume. But, of course, it is my task to challenge them –trying to live up, I hope, to the spirit of those foundational Cold War debates.
Starting with diversity, the authors define their ideal type in the most encompassing manner, but they often argue as if the canon within Cold War rationality was rational choice theory. I don’t think, at least, that any other of the approaches discussed in the book exhibits to the same degree the features of the type listed in p.5: formal methods modelling self-interested individuals in conflict, with a radical simplification of the circumstances and a step-by-step impersonal approach to a solution. As the authors acknowledge (p. 94), GRIT rulesfor conflict resolution are not as algorithmic as the identification of Nash equilibria. Even if the setting put individuals in conflict, situation rooms apparently neither sought nor yieldeddecision rules (p. 124). And certainly “the collapse of Cold War rationality” came with experimental tests of rational choice models. The other research agendas sparked by the nuclear threat apparently did not make it that far: whereas Cold War results in, e.g., game theory are still part of the standard curriculum in some social sciences, most other topics addressed in this book only belong in the history of their disciplines.
Why not telling the story of Cold War rationality, in all its diversity, giving its weight to its difference constituents? At this point it wouldn’t seem Whiggish, just an acknowledgment of the longer reach of rational choice theory among Cold War theories. My impression is that the authors do not seem very inclined to make such distinction, because they implicitly disagree with the sort of social science associated with rational choice theory (e.g., “the notoriously mean and lean Homo economicus”, p. 185), and they treat it as if its time was already past. This is how I make sense, at least, of the title of the book: “How Reason Almost Lost its Mind”. The reduction of rationality to formal decision models seems was often achieved “at the expense of reason” (p.2), where this latter is understood as the sort of Enlightened wisdom that an automaton can just poorly imitate. The “almost” in the title seems to suggest that the Cold War is over and there is a chance for reason to regain its grounds. Thereby, perhaps, the surprise at philosophers still spending so much time on rational choice theory as of today (p. 187). But what are the reasonable alternatives that we should be discussing instead?
I would have expected though that a historical analysis of Cold War rationality would have made explicit instances of such alternatives at the point where they were perhaps considered and discarded. Taking up again, by way of instance, EUT, it might have been more fruitfulto discuss how a reasonable decision rule from the Enlightement(Bernoullian utility functions) became the standard of Cold War decision making? After all, choosing between uncertain alternatives according to an average (expected utility maximization) is just an option among others (why not focusing on the variance). What made it so attractivecirca 1940?Can we explain its normative appeal on a priori considerations (such as Savage’s Dutch Book argument) or is it also ideological?After all, the alternatives to EUT now under construction among decision theorists (prospect theory, etc.) are closer to Cold War rationality standards than to any sort of mindful reason. And this was the case already in the 1950s: think of Allais’ arguments about the reasonability of EUT. So what is the reason beyond rationality in CWR?
Alternatively, we may wonder whether the Cold War is really over, as far as the idea of rationality in the social sciences is concerned. The contextual pressure of a nuclear threat may have propelled the deployment of rational choice theory in the social sciences. But probably something else is keeping it in place now, for the right or the wrong reasons.Reading CWR I cannot understand well why such algorithmic standards of rationality still prevail. The answer might not be epistemic at all: since the American military and the policy makers were mostly alone on the demand side for rationality during the Cold War, I can’t help wondering whether they were satisfied with the outcome they funded so generously. Perhaps the survival of Cold War Rationality is, after all, the survival of the intellectual institutions that won such War. Historians are certainly among the few who can answer that.

{September, 2014}

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