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Return of the Luddites Emerson M.S. Niou and Peter C. Ordeshook In this response to Stephen Walt’s critique1 of the application of formal analysis to international security studies, we take strong issue with a number of Walt’s arguments and assertions, and we try to clarify what we believe are his misconceptions about the nature and mechanisms of progress in scientiªc research. We begin, however , by identifying some of the issues we do not dispute with Walt. First, it is true that formal analysis, especially in the area of security studies, is only infrequently motivated by the attempt to explain some well-documented empirical regularity or universally recognized empirical anomaly. If there is room for disagreement here, it is the extent to which regularities or anomalies can be found in the security studies literature that are sufªciently precise to allow careful analysis. Second, there is little disagreement that some formalism exists for its own sake, although we need to be cautious here because much of this rigor seeks to understand the very deªnition of rationality in complex strategic environments. Third, despite the proliferation of competing models of deterrence , bargaining, coalitions, threats, and so on, those models are rarely set against each other for competitive empirical assessment. Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that very little of what researchers label “theory” is theory in any true sense, but instead is often best described as a demonstration of one’s ability to cobble together assumptions and derive something that can be labeled “lemma” or “theorem.” Rational Choice, Game Theory, or Formalism? Despite these agreements, we believe that much of Walt’s discussion is wrongheaded and counterproductive to his objective of sustaining a policy-relevant subªeld of security studies. To begin, Walt’s article is not a dispassionate attempt at “evaluating the contribution of recent formal work in the ªeld” (p. 8); rather, it is an unconstructive critique. But what is it a critique of— rational choice, game theory, or formalism? His article begins by bemoaning the limitations and increasing predominance of the rational choice paradigm 84 International Security, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall 1999), pp. 84–96© 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Emerson M.S. Niou is Associate Professor of Political Science at Duke University. Peter C. Ordeshook is Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology. 1. Stephen M. Walt, “Rigor or Rigor Mortis? Rational Choice and Security Studies,” International Security, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Spring 1999), pp. 5–48. Further references to this article appear in parentheses in the text. (citing such “experts” as Chalmers Johnson). Then, via a superªcial review of Bayesian analysis, Walt’s focus detours to game theory, but soon is directed at three things—the paradigm, game theory, and formalism—after essentially equating the paradigm with game theory and formalism. This blurred focus is occasioned, doubtlessly, by the fact that the paradigm, game theory, and formalism , though intimately related, are not equivalent: nonmathematical scholars such as V.O. Key certainly embraced rational choice perspectives; William Riker, arguably the father (or at least midwife) of rational choice thought in political science, rarely, if ever, proved a theorem and instead relied on the formal insights of others; and the use of mathematics often falls outside the domain of what anyone might argue is rational choice theorizing. Walt’s true target, though, appears to be formalism. He gives only passing reference to the usual shopworn critiques of the rationalist paradigm (although he cannot refrain in footnote 35 on page 17 from swallowing the misconception that the paradigm presupposes people who are mathematical geniuses), and he seems only mildly discomfited by the folk theorems of game theory, which place the as yet unmodeled and poorly understood mechanisms of equilibrium selection at the center of any complete theory of social processes. The reason for Walt’s redirected focus, we suspect, is that the study of international relations and security is a subªeld of political science that has long accepted the rationalist premise of self-interested action and depended, albeit imprecisely , on the strategic imperatives of game theory (recall that much of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4804
Print ISSN
0162-2889
Pages
pp. 84-96
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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