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  • Cold War Psychology
  • Laura Penny
How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality, by Paul Erickson, Judy L. Klein, Lorraine Daston, Rebecca Lemov, Thomas Sturm and Michael D. Gordin. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2013. viii, 259 pp. $35.00 US (cloth), $21.00 US (paper).
The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature, by Jamie Cohen-Cole. Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 2014. 397 pp. $45.00 US (cloth), $27.00 US (paper).

The Cold War abounds with ironies of the ‘‘no fighting in the war room’’ type, to paraphrase a gag from Kubrick ’s pitch-black nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove. Perhaps the most flagrant one is America’s elaborate and expensive effort to rationally control a fundamentally irrational threat. 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’’ (83).

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. [End Page 345]

How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind originated at the Max Planck Institute’s 2010 workshop on the Strangelovian Sciences. 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 (63).

The delightfully-named Operation Vittles, which conveyed supplies to Berlin, gave birth to Project scoop, an acronym for the Scientific Computation of Optimum Programs. Even though ibm had yet to produce a computer that could satisfy the military’s voracious demand for information and calculations, programming and algorithms became important components of, and models for, Cold War rationality. Algorithms did not suffer from fear, or any other potentially distorting feeling.

Computational rationality was but one model researchers deployed. Game theory was another, and the authors focus on its strange career in chapter five, explaining the development of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the eventual diminution of game theory’s sway. In the sixth and final chapter, the authors contend that the rise of cognitive science, especially the heuristics-and-biases work of Kahneman and Tversky, hastened the collapse of Cold War conceptions of rationality. For Kahneman and Tversky, reason is but one of two cognitive systems, and System One, unconscious or biased thinking, is arguably the more powerful of the two.

The book’s most entertaining chapter takes us to Micronesia, where early nuclear tests were conducted. While researchers were testing the lethal fruits of big science, their social science coevals...


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pp. 345-349
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