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Warren Weaver on the Epistemology of Crude Formal Analysis: Relativistic Cosmology and the “General Theory of Air Warfare”

Willem de Sitter and Albert Einstein discuss the equations governing the dynamics of the universe.

Willem de Sitter and Albert Einstein discuss the equations governing the dynamics of the universe

In a pair of earlier posts I discussed mathematician Warren Weaver’s opening address at the 1947 RAND conference of social scientists, in which he suggested that all the attendees shared a devotion to the “rational life.” Weaver made it clear that what he meant by the “rational life” was not a strict rationalism, but a kind of searching, open-ended approach to analyzing questions that decision makers were compelled to answer whether they analyzed them or not.

Weaver’s interest in such problems appears to have been primarily prompted by his experience in World War II, dealing with conundrums in the design and selection of military equipment. Weaver confronted these problems, first as an overseer of research on “fire control” (gun-aiming) devices, and then as chief of an organization called the Applied Mathematics Panel. He was particularly impressed by a body of analytical techniques first developed in Britain by a statistician named L. B. C. Cunningham, and referred to as the “mathematical theory of combat” or “air warfare analysis.” In brief, Cunningham’s theory combined expressions describing the specifications of alternative weapons systems and equipment configurations, the tactics of attackers and defenders, and the vulnerability of targets, and used them to derive expectation values for victory in combat.

Various pursuit curves a fighter might follow in making an attack on a bomber.

Various pursuit curves a fighter might follow in making an attack on a bomber. The image links to a post with further context.

It is important to note that, although these expectation values might be checked against data from actual combat, they were not imagined to provide accurate predictions. Rather, they provided a means of comparing different choices of design by making explicit and interrogating previously tacit assumptions that engineers made about the virtues of their various designs. When Weaver spoke, RAND was beginning to elaborate on these methods and to apply them to the design of more complex and prospective military technologies under the new label “systems analysis” (a label that would shift significantly in meaning in subsequent years).

To clarify the intellectual value of this analytical activity, Weaver compared its epistemology to the then-nascent field of relativistic cosmology.

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