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  3. Book Alert: How Reason Almost Lost its Mind - IIS - University of Amsterdam
  4. Book Alert: How Reason Almost Lost its Mind

The Berlin airlift Operation Vittles , which was a response to the Soviet blockade of all land routes to that divided city, was an important application in one of the early Cold War confrontations between the superpowers. That insight was an additional impetus for thinking about reasoning and problem solving.

The Cuban missile crisis of October is the focal point of chapter 3. By this time, the Soviet Union had acquired nuclear weapons and the American nuclear arsenal was so large that it far exceeded what would have been required for an attack on all the potential 3, Soviet targets identified in The key figures in the debates included Kahn, author of a massive tome, On Thermonuclear War , which posited that everything about such conflicts could be understood by rational choice theory. Group dynamics may emphasize the value of group solidarity at the cost of judicious information processing.

Chapter 4 centers on the situation.

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To critics, such as Rapoport and Deutsch, game theory did not provide a scientific calculus for solving the problem of rationality in a nuclear world. Those who assisted in undermining a consensus on rationality included Kahneman and Tversky, cognitive scientists who presented a number of important studies raising serious doubts that people obeyed the rules of Bayesian statistics and expected utility theory. Research by psychologist Tetlock further reinforced the views of the doubters.

His work revealed that even experts rarely do better than chance in political forecasting. Whereas the project had earlier brought together political scientists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, mathematicians, and computer scientists, now most of those with an interest in the concept of rationality have retreated into their own disciplinary homelands.

As recognized in chapter 3, the Cuban missile crisis of October was by far the most dangerous situation confronting decision makers in Washington and Moscow. The crisis provided a real world setting in which conceptions of rationality were put to a critical test. For this reason, the authors could have developed more fully how leaders in Washington and Moscow were able to avoid nuclear disaster.

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Earlier that year, the brilliant popular historian Barbara Tuchman had published The Guns of August , an account of the European crisis triggered by the assassination in June of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Serbian terrorists. It revealed how leaders in Berlin, London, Paris, St. Petersburg, and Vienna managed to stumble into one of the most disastrous and consequential wars in history. For example, the German and French mobilizations were ordered within hours of each other.


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The crisis situation thus placed European leaders under considerable stress arising from the pace of mobilizations and counter-mobilizations. Consequently the quality of decision making fell far short of even the loosest definition of rationality.

Book Alert: How Reason Almost Lost its Mind - IIS - University of Amsterdam

Increasingly leaders perceived that they had few if any policy alternatives, whereas only their adversaries could readily take steps to reverse the escalation into war; their failure to do so only proved their malign intentions. In this moment it still lies in your power to avert it. President John F.

Kennedy read The Guns of August and was sufficiently impressed that he ordered members of his administration, including military advisers, to read it. After U-2 flights over Cuba revealed the existence of Soviet missile sites on that island, Kennedy took a number of steps that seemed designed to reduce the dangers of a like scenario.

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Even such level-headed and experienced American leaders as Senator J. William Fulbright dismissed the blockade of Cuba as inadequate, urging American air strikes to destroy the missile sites. Recognizing that the leaders had felt under intense pressure to act quickly in order to get a jump on their adversaries should war break out, thereby hastening the process of escalation, Kennedy took a number of steps aimed at slowing down the pace of events.

Book Alert: How Reason Almost Lost its Mind

By choosing a naval blockade as the initial American response, he not only selected an option relatively low on the ladder of escalation but also was buying time. To give Nikita Khrushchev and his Kremlin colleagues more time to decide whether to attack the ships in the American blockade, as they had threatened to do, he ordered the ships to retreat back toward Cuba, delaying the point at which the U.

Navy would interdict the Soviet ships. Soviet leaders would presumably give greater credibility to information gained by their own intelligence efforts than to a direct message from Washington. How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind quotes George Kennan, one of America's most prominent strategists of containment, who said that the nuclear bomb was "the most useless weapon ever invented. It can be employed to no rational purpose" These two books elucidate the roles academics played in the military-industrial complex and the creation of the Cold War's liberal consensus, and how this altered the academy, especially the social or human sciences.

Both books are from the University of Chicago Press, and complement each other nicely. How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind unpacks the ideas of an elite echelon of Cold War thinkers, the "action intellectuals" working in the hard and social sciences who circulated through universities, an alphabet soup of acronymic think tanks, government, and the mainstream press. The Open Mind has much to say about these thinkers as well, but is more interested in the way Cold War thought trickled down to the general public, and was integrated into education and discourse.

Cohen-Cole details the promulgation of the idea an open mind was the best--and most American--intellectual disposition. Given that few North Americans, to this day, pride themselves on their closed-mindedness, the popularization of open-mindedness is an example of an exceptionally efficacious Western propaganda campaign.

It is the work of an interdisciplinary team of six scholars specializing in history of science, economics, and philosophy. As interdisciplinarity was one of the hallmarks of Cold War rationality--a feature of the era's ethos that Cohen-Cole treats at length--their approach is a neat match for the topic. The authors begin by distinguishing reason from rationality.

Reason and arguments about it have a long history in the West, culminating in the Enlightenment enthusiasm for rule-based thinking as a superior replacement for tradition or superstition.

But the authors insist that Leibniz's declaration, "let us calculate," gained new meaning and urgency after World War II, with the development of computing power and in the face of staggering logistical challenges such as the Berlin Airlift The delightfully-named Operation Vittles, which conveyed supplies to Berlin, gave birth to Project scoop, an acronym for the Scientific Computation of Optimum Programs.