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The "Essay Tradition"


[Cross posted at Organizations and Markets]

On the triumph of formalism in economics (addressed here and here) — not to mention academic insults — I give you this passage in Fred Kaplan's The Wizards of Armageddon, a history of the RAND Corporation. The subject is RAND mathematician Albert Wohlstetter, the chief theoretician behind the development of US nuclear strategy in the 1950s and 1960s. Writes Kaplan:

[T]he social science division was removed from the rest of RAND — literally, 2500 miles away, in Washington, D.C. Most [of the social scientists] were figuratively removed, too: quantitative analysis had triumphed at RAND, through the spread of systems analysis and game theory and — until the Wohlstetter studies, which put the economids division on top of the strategic business — through the domination over the rest of RAND by the mathematics division. [Wohlstetter, though a mathematician, was associated with the economics division.] These sorts of studies were scientific, so it was thought; there were numbers, calculations, rigorously checked, sometimes on a computer. maybe the numbers were questionable, but they were tangible, unlike the theorizing, the Kremlinology, the academic historical research and interpretation produced by social science. Wohlstetter snootily denigrated all such works as being in "the essay tradition."

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