Tag Archives: Warren Weaver

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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What did Warren Weaver mean when he spoke of “the rational life”?

In 1947 Air Force Project RAND—then a branch of Douglas Aircraft, but soon to become the independent RAND Corporation—decided that it needed to recruit social scientists to aid it in its studies of prospective military technologies. As a step forward it held a conference of social scientists that September. The director of natural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, mathematician Warren Waver, delivered the conference’s opening remarks.

The beginning of Warren Weaver's speech to open the RAND conference on social science

The characteristically jokey opening to Warren Weaver’s opening remarks to the RAND Corporation’s 1947 conference on social science. People from technical fields moonlighting in the social sciences are prominently mentioned. The president of the New Jersey Telephone Company was Chester Barnard, who would soon become president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Document source: Papers of Edward L. Bowles, Box 44, Folder 4, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Asking the rhetorical question of why they had assembled there, Weaver began by explaining: “I take it that every person in this room is fundamentally interested and devoted to what you can just broadly call the rational life.”

As I note in a parallel post at Ether Wave Propaganda, the remark was first quoted in journalist Fred Kaplan’s 1983 book The Wizards of Armageddon, where it is truncated and explained in such a way that it appears to augur an attempt to marshall social scientists into an attempt “impose” a rational order on military strategy and national policy. The “rational life” quote has been used by a number of other authors since Kaplan’s book appeared, and the meaning of the term has always been taken for granted. This post explores what Weaver had in mind.

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