Cold War psychology.
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.
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 were studying Micronesians as well. Like the old anthropology joke about the average family in Papua New Guinea--parents, child, and their anthropologist--so too were the Micronesians mobbed by researchers eager to subject them to all the latest tests and experiments. The authors note that the nuclear and social scientists who occupied these tiny islands never shared or compared their research. Sheer proximity did not lead to interdisciplinary communication between the hard and human sciences.
Though How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind is a slender volume, not quite 200 pages, it is a dense and richly-sourced one, with nearly forty pages of notes. The authors are to be commended for their lucid prose. How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind rarely reads like the product of composition-by-committee, and has flashes of sardonic wit. There are some passages, largely those dealing directly with the development of algorithms, that may be tough for a reader lacking some mathematical or scientific background. Still, the majority of the text is accessible to the lay reader, and makes a helpful contribution to the history of science.
Jamie Cohen-Cole is an associate professor of American Studies at George Washington University, and his background in the history of ideas, as well as history of science, makes The Open Mind less technical and thus more accessible to the nonspecialist than How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind. Open-mindedness, Cohen-Cole argues, was the centrist sweet spot between Communism on the left and McCarthyism and other authoritarian conservative movements on the right.
The open mind was a creative, flexible, and autonomous one. CohenCole draws our attention to the boom in creativity research in America in the 1950s. Creativity became a panacea for all kinds of social and civic ills. The open mind was also defined in contrast to the authoritarian personality, in its many pernicious forms, ranging from Soviet communists to domestic racists. Prejudice was not just irrational; it was unpatriotic, a failure to embrace the ideals that made America a dynamic and democratic nation.
Cohen-Cole begins with anxieties about the fragmentation of American culture, and concerns that the proliferation of various kinds of expertise had rendered people unable to communicate or cohere. Neither of the two available pedagogical options, the canonical liberal arts or a more practical Dewey-inspired curriculum, could unify Americans. Cohen-Cole provides a detailed account of the struggles of the Educational Policies Commission to create a synthetic solution.
The solution was a curriculum that encouraged and inculcated openmindedness. Practically, this entailed a greater emphasis on skills than content. Being proficient at thinking, judging, and communicating became far more important than knowledge of any particular field. This notion lives on in standardized tests, such as the sat, which was supported by many of the intellectuals who developed new curricula.
Cohen-Cole repeatedly underlines that Cold War academics tended to conflate the university with the country and culture as a whole. If they could fix academia, then surely they could fix America, since they suffered from common complaints. Consequently, The Open Mmd also serves as a fascinating history of the mores of the American professoriate, and changes in the scholarly climate at elite institutions, like Harvard, that exerted the most influence.
For example, Cohen-Cole devotes a whole chapter to the virtues of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary work was superlatively open-minded; it freed researchers from their parochial allegiance to particular fields of inquiry. Interdisciplinary work was more creative and democratic, but it was also positioned as more rigorous, more objective, and the best way for the social sciences to acquire the legitimacy and power of the hard sciences.
The rise of interdisciplinary work created winners and losers within the disciplines. In psychology, we see this in the decline of behaviourism and subsequent cognitive revolution. B.F. Skinner was not good at playing with other departments, or even other psychologists. More importantly, reducing the human psyche to a set of stimuli and responses did not leave much scope for connections with economics, sociology, linguistics, or anthropology.
Conversely, cognitive approaches drew on, and were applicable to, several scholarly fields. Cohen-Cole devotes a chapter to Harvard's Center for Cognitive Studies. Founded in i960 by Jerome Bruner and George Miller, it was comprised of psychologists, linguists, philosophers, biologists, mathematicians, pediatricians, historians, and anthropologists. Readers responsible for departmental budgets may well feel a pang of envy reading about the Center's difficulties managing the tsunami of funds that gushed from government agencies and philanthropists such as Carnegie and Rockefeller. It was a contentious, chaotic hothouse, but it devolved into what Cohen-Cole calls multidisciplinarity in five years, and was closed in 1972.
Even though some interdisciplinary experiments were short-lived, Cohen-Cole insists that the enthusiasm for interdisciplinary work was not merely theoretical. Several of the intellectuals stumping for open-mindedness had been involved in interdisciplinary initiatives during the World Wars. Moreover, the call to interdisciplinarity did not end at the lab or office, and was part of a broader cultural movement encouraging collaboration, collegiality, and even conviviality. If you have ever felt awkward at a wine-and-cheese, Cohen-Cole suggests that you can thank the Cold War for this.
Conferences were an opportunity to flout the openness of one's mind, and to revel in interdisciplinarity. Conferences were also a chance to deploy the reflexivity that distinguished an open mind, insofar as they served as useful examples of small-group behaviour, and allowed social scientists to subject themselves to their own studies. Anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead, produced ethnographic studies of conferences. One of the conferences Mead studied, the United Nations Conference on Conferences, is a fine example of this reflexivity. Mead's research led her to claim that catering could make or break a conference; serving the right snacks and drinks at the right times fostered a sense of community and facilitated productive exchanges among participants.
Cohen-Cole returns to the topic of curricula in chapter seven, which considers a social studies program called Man: A Course of Study, which Bruner organized based on cognitive research, macos asked students to ponder what made us human, and how we could be more so. For example, it used ethnographic footage of the Netsilik people to highlight what was universal about humans, but also to make students aware of their own culture as such.
In chapter eight, Cohen-Cole describes the unraveling of the liberal consensus in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the right and the left rejected the centrists' claims about the open mind. The right began to organize and agitate against curricula like Man: A Course of Study, arguing they were un-American. Reagan even used it as an example of creeping secularism and liberalism in his 1980 campaign. Leftists questioned the objectivity of thinkers so thoroughly integrated into the political machine, and protested liberal complicity with militarism. Movements like Students for a Democratic Society co-opted the language of open-mindedness, much to the chagrin of figures like Mead and Kennan, who alleged the protesters were comporting themselves more like authoritarians.
The central irony of Cohen-Cole's history, of which he is acutely aware, is that the ideal open-minded person ended up looking very much like the scholars and policy wonks that advocated for open-mindedness. As he wryly notes in chapter two, "When authoritarianism could be successfully measured by a person's admiration of the pope and democratic character assessed by a person's appreciation of Bertrand Russell, these traits ultimately marked more than political affiliation and cognitive capabilities" (60-61).
Both these books are valuable additions to scholarship on the Cold War, but How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind and The Open Mind are also intriguing histories of a peculiar period in academic life. Researchers benefited from virtually infinite funding, robust private and public support, and access to political power, but they laboured under the looming threat of total global annihilation.
The University of King's College
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|Title Annotation:||"How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality" and "The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature"|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 18, 2016|
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