Book Alert: How Reason Almost Lost its Mind

by: Jeroen van Dongen

14 June 2016

How do humans make decisions? What is the correct way of making decisions? And how can we find that out? These are relevant questions, especially if the ability to make decisions under severe time pressure is of crucial importance; for example, when it concerns a life or death decision or, indeed, the continued existence of life as we know it. In ‘How reason almost lost its mind: The Strange Career of Cold War rationality’, by Paul Erickson, Judy L. Klein Daston, Rebecca Lemov, Thomas Sturm, and Michael D. Gordin (University of Chicago Press, 2013), we see how the Cold War stimulated research into a certain type of answer in particular: an answer that was based on the ‘rational’, instead of the ‘reasonable’, human being.

Making decisions under extreme time pressure was highly topical in the heyday of the Cold War. At a time of high tension, a decision had to be taken in the war room of the White House on whether to ‘escalate’ or ‘de-escalate’: “Should we drop the bomb now or not, and what would the Russians do then?” In the years following the Second World War, the American government and army eagerly turned to science, namely the social sciences, in order to prepare for this choice. However, this was social science with a particular slant: they assumed, for example, that the best guide in situations as mentioned above was game theory, which had been developed shortly before by the mathematician John von Neumann, together with the economist Oscar Morgenstern. They had figured out how you should always win in certain simplified situations by taking steps in a correct and ‘rational’ way. The expectation was that the analysis of simple games of noughts and crosses can be extended to more complex circumstances, such as that of a nuclear standoff.   

Human beings as calculators

And game theory was therefore substantially subsidised by consecutive American governments. However, it was not only game theory that could count on generous attention from the different American government institutions: actually all forms of social science that were based on human beings as a type of rational (striving for maximum impact for minimal ‘costs’) calculator following algorithms. At Harvard, for example, they examined how small groups of people integrated, which was paid for by the air force. The premise was to analyse that interaction in ‘event bits’, coloured by 12 elementary emotions (from ‘shows antagonism’ up to and including ‘shows solidarity’), which displayed social atoms from which a universal Interaction Process could be derived. Insight into this would pay off, for example, when entering into aerial combat. The scientific image of physics can be clearly recognised and likewise that of the logical positivists: the reality is built up out of basic units that relate to each other via logical laws and from which a universal world emerges. At the same time, it is not difficult to imagine what the effect of the big financial possibilities was: the image of the rational human being, summed up in figures and protocols, became the guiding principle in the social sciences. It became clear gradually that people of flesh and blood could also exhibit deviations from that image (take concepts such as ‘group think’ or ‘verification bias’ for example), which could be examined and treated as deviations in particular. However, the consensus did not shift until the 1980s, according to Erickson et al.                    

Moral considerations and intuition

What is interesting about this history of science view of a section of the social sciences is the way in which it assigns a time and place to the authority of this view of humanity, which still resonates greatly of course. ‘How reason almost lost its mind’ also explains, namely, how the ‘rational’ view of humanity is not very self-evident if you dig a little deeper into the past: in previous decades (and centuries), moral considerations and personal intuition were deemed to be an inalienable part of human decisions: reason (and not, using the terminology of Erickson et al., the ‘ratio’) was deemed to be the essential instrument in order to arrive at a decision. In the heyday of the Cold War, people made a particular effort to eradicate those kinds of spuriously sincere considerations — with the firm conviction, it should be noted, that the Russian opponent would hold an equally reductionist view of humanity and sat on the other other side of the chessboard with an equally ‘rational’ game-theoretic algorithm. We can now conclude, with somewhat of a shudder, that this turned out not to be the case.     

Different views of humanity

The book of Erickson et al. is at its strongest when it exposes the epistemological differences between the respective ways of looking, and discusses how the rational view of humanity was felt strongly in all kinds of overly ambitious projects of the social sciences. Nevertheless, as a reader you want to get a better grip of the origin of that view of humanity and the authors pay too little attention to that (apart from short sketches of the role of industrial management studies from the 1920s in the American army during WWII).  As an extension of that, it also never becomes completely clear why ‘ratio’ instead of ‘reason’ could acquire such authority — maybe precisely because its most prominent supporters (mainly Von Neumann) were already very much in support of further arming and therefore had the wind behind them? In any case, ‘How reason lost its mind’ convincingly demonstrates, in particular, that the authority of the ‘ratio’ at that time was contingent on history — that it was not implicit in the state of things, but that a historical, more or less accidental convergence of circumstances brought this paradigm to the fore in the social sciences. Such a perspective lends more authority once again to that other way of coming to an important decision: moral deliberation.

Published by  Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies