“What We Do, and Why it Matters: A Response to FKS” (A Response to H-Diplo/ISSF Forum on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons.”)

Response to H-Diplo/ISSF Forum on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons.”  http://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/ISSF-Forum-2.pdf

Published by H-Diplo/ISSF on 18 June 2014

URL:  http://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/ISSF-Forum-2-Response.pdf

What We Do, and Why it Matters: A Response to FKS[1]

Francis J. Gavin

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

                  -           Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

In his recent Jack Ruina Nuclear Age lecture at MIT, Robert Jervis – arguably our most important scholar of nuclear dynamics – reminded his audience how little we actually know about the influence of nuclear weapons.  “Their impact on world politics is hard to discern.”  Everywhere one looks, Jervis pointed out, there are puzzles that remain stubbornly immune to definitive answers. Would the Cold War have happened at all without nuclear weapons, or would it have unfolded in much the same way?  Do nuclear weapons stabilize international relations or make the world more dangerous?  Why don’t more countries have nuclear weapons? Why did American decision-makers pursue strategies and deployments that seem to have disregarded the fundamental insights scholars had proposed about the meaning of the nuclear revolution?  Why is this gap even larger when you look beyond the United States to the eight other nuclear-weapons states?  Were scholars prescribing when they thought they were describing?  Did the nuclear balance matter, and if so, when and in what ways?  Were all conflicts between nuclear states in some sense nuclear wars?  What role did credibility play in nuclear politics, given that deterrence is based on a threat to use nuclear weapons few actually believed? Perhaps most importantly, how have our ideas about nuclear weapons changed over time, and how have these changes affected the realities of nuclear weapons?  Jervis’s remarkable meditation was a pointed reminder that we lack certainty on these issues, and must be humble in our efforts to understand these terrifying, horrific weapons.  The great challenge for scholars is “to recapture the strangeness of the nuclear world.”[2]

I want to thank Matthew Fuhrmann, Matthew Kroenig, and Todd Sescher (FKS) for their thoughtful reply and willingness to engage in such an important subject in this novel platform.  I’d also like to thank those scholars who commented on this debate, Scott Sagan for expertly framing these issues in his introduction, and in particular, the extraordinary H-Diplo team of George Fujii, Diane Labrosse, and James McAllister for shepherding a spirited discussion.  I’ve have learned quite a bit from these exchanges – if nothing else, I am now far more conversant in terms like omitted variable bias and selection effects than I was a year ago.  I hope others in the H-Diplo/ISSF community will now join the discussion. 

Obviously, I disagree with much of what FKS say in their response.  But a detailed reply to a reply to a review of two articles would be a bit silly.  I think each of us has laid out his arguments clearly, and I leave it to others to weigh in and decide for themselves.  I would, however, like to make two points: first, about how we should think about the role of methodology in our scholarship, and second, why these questions and debates around nuclear statecraft are of fundamental importance for both security studies and policy.

I do not propose – as FKS imply -- that the “most important example” method is the only or always the best way of explaining how the world works.[3]  If I were studying the links between smoking and cancer, where the “average” effects were important, I might well use quantitative methods -- though I would hopefully employ an N several orders of magnitude larger than theirs of 52 or 210 cases.  I would additionally recognize that smokers may have been smoking different things in different quantities and that their smoking interacted with countless other distinct variables over each smoker’s life to determine health outcomes.  I might note that the first scientist to demonstrate the link between tobacco and cancer initially used experimental methods.[4]  Furthermore, I would acknowledge the recent concern within the biomedical community about many of its health findings based on statistical studies.[5]  Most importantly, I would recognize that different methods are appropriate for different questions, and insist that we should choose a method(s) based on how well it explains what we are trying to understand.

The most important point of my critique was to demonstrate the inability of FKS’s method to explain (or even properly specify) the most dangerous nuclear crisis in history, the 1958-1962 standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States.  As a result, I found little comfort that they claimed to explain outcomes in far less important confrontations where it is not even clear that nuclear possession played any role, like crises over Haiti or El Salvador.  Given the rarity, difficulty of defining, complexity, and potentially horrific consequences of any nuclear crises, this is one subject where I am not as interested in “averages.”  In fact what I am really worried about and want to better understand when it comes to nuclear crises is “outliers.”  Others might feel differently. 

FKS are of course right that statistics have many virtues, and international relations scholars have used them effectively to shed important light on many questions, including nuclear dynamics.[6]  Scholars often posit theories with observable implications and it is natural that we should want to test them as rigorously as possible.  But caution and humility are in order.  We often comfort ourselves with the belief that through math we can drain our analysis of prejudice, bias, ad-hockery, and other “unscientific” thoughts that many believe plague qualitative tests and narrative accounts.  Dig deeper, however, and it becomes obvious that those numbers often reflect similar untested assumptions, biases, and interpretations, and are no more scientific that qualitative accounts.[7]  Consider a simple but important question that goes to the heart of the issue: what is a nuclear crisis (or when does a crisis become nuclear)?  I imagine that we could generate as many answers to this key question as there are subscribers to H-Diplo.  Or how would we define, let alone quantify, an “observation” (FKS seem to use “case” and “observation” interchangeably, which is confusing) -- is the whole crisis an observation, or does it consist of a series of observations, given the constant ebb and flow of strategic interaction, gaining information, and learning between adversaries?[8]  Needless to say, international politics does not take place in the stable, clean environment of a lab. FKS’s analogy of the zero-sum, closed system of a sporting match obviously fails to capture the complexity of nuclear crises, where identifying the winner and the loser of a nuclear standoff is often in the eye of the beholder and can change over time.

The real problem with this kind of analysis is that statistics can be very powerful tools to establish correlations, but often more problematic – especially as they are used by FKS – to establish causality.[9]  The divorce rate in Maine, for example, correlates precisely over time with the per capita use of margarine in the United States, and the changing rate of people killed by their own bedsheets maps almost exactly with shift in U.S. ski facility profits, but no one would seriously argue for any causal inference in these examples.[10] Large-n observational analyses in which selection effects, endogeneity, post-treatment bias, model dependencies, reverse causality, and non-comparable and temporally unstable cases (to use the lingo of my political science friends) are rampant do not allow for powerful claims to causal inference.[11]  Even when statistical correlations are identified, it often does not translate into useful policy predictions.[12]  Nor does this method help us understand the crucial but unobservable crises that never happened because of selection effects; in other words, where nuclear dynamics deterred the state from provoking a crisis in the first place.[13] If what we want to know is why something did – or did not -- happen, FKS’s methods fall short. 

It is important to note that this methodological critique is not simply a matter of “different horses for different courses.”  Historians have been wrestling with statistics and “big data” for well over a century, and are quite aware of its benefits and shortcomings, most famously exposed during the rancorous debate over Robert Fogel and Stanley Engermann’s use of statistics to make claims for the benefits of slavery in the pre-Civil War U.S. South.[14]  Reflecting on the great controversies within the discipline of history over what was dubbed “clio-metrics,” the former President of the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association Joyce Appleby “observed that while quantitative history had made it impossible to deny the structural inequities in American history, the statistics had not spoken for themselves. Historical analysis required revealing the power relations that produced the numbers, and that work would generally be qualitative in nature.”[15]

Do FKS actually believe their startling claim that qualitative methods are "particularly ill equipped for assessing causality?” (FKS, 11)  Their previous work indicates they do not.  As Todd Sescher wisely suggested in his 2007 dissertation: "Acknowledging the inherent limits of quantitative analyses, chapter 4 conducts a detailed case study in an effort to illustrate the mechanisms by which reputational factors might influence governmental decision-making during crises."[16]  Fuhrmann has also acknowledged the benefits of historical work for generating causal claims:  "Given that every empirical approach has drawbacks, a multi-method assessment of my theory can inspire greater confidence in the findings presented in this article. The case study analysis above provides rich descriptions of my argument and illustrates that the causal processes operate as expected in actual instances of proliferation.”[17] In his book, Exporting the Bomb, Kroenig uses qualitative methods to “explore the mechanisms” of his theory by conducting an “in-depth analysis of an important case.”[18]  I think Vipin Narang said it best in his contribution to this discussion:

“the causal inference revolution in quantitative methods may lead to a resurrection in the discipline’s valuation of qualitative methods in nuclear security, since qualitative methods in this particular area are much better suited to identifying and teasing out causal mechanisms and processes than the big-data enterprise.”[19]

This is not to say qualitative methods are without their own set of problems; no method is perfect. But I suspect many on this list would find FKS’s claims about historical work puzzling.  Given the volume and intensity of debate over important events in the past, historians might be surprised to learn that qualitative research “is not always so amenable to external oversight.” (FKS, 7)  We all understand that the historical record, just like the data sets that rely upon it, is often incomplete, and no historian I know would disagree with their claim that “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” (FKS, 9).  Historians deal with issues like incompleteness or participant bias in a variety of ways, including rigorously interrogating the evidence and engaging in multi-archival, multi-national research.[20]  FKS and other like them should be especially grateful for this rigor, as this qualitative work is the basis for the inputs into their models, even if careless coding at times simplifies complex historical findings into blunt variables. 

It is these very difficulties of actually knowing why something happened in world politics that make historians far more cautious about generalizations.  Some of this, no doubt, reflects differences in temperament between the disciplines. One of our most distinguished diplomatic historians, for example, suggests that the whole concept of an “independent variable” is misleading at best.[21]  In the end, however, good historians and political scientists are similar in that they don’t simply let “the evidence speak for itself.”  They base their insights on the constant interaction between their theories and conceptual frameworks and what they find in the empirical record.[22]  Though both sides may hate to admit it, what political scientist like FKS are trying to do when they “analyze” is not that different from what historians do when they “interpret.”  As such, when we make bold causal claims and generalizations about important subjects, we should expect to have those analyses/interpretations, and the empirical base, methods, and assumptions that back them, exposed to rigorous examination.  I invite the members of this listserv (and beyond) to undertake such an examination, both of my arguments and those of FKS.

Why does any of this matter?  Isn’t this just so much academic posturing?  That is certainly not how I see this debate and its significance. How and in what spirit we approach nuclear dynamics reveals what matters to us as scholars, and whether we can lay any claim to be taken seriously by people outside of the academy. 

To understand the importance of these issues, both in the academic world and in policy, think of a brilliant student interested in understanding how the world works, and in particular, wanting to know how nuclear weapons influence international relations.  Lets call her Isabel A.  Isabel A recognizes she needs to learn more, and considers applying to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. and study with great professors.  She first explores history departments – Isabel A majored in history as an undergraduate and assumed knowledge of the past would be good preparation for thinking about the future.  But she is warned that no one in a top-ten ranked history department is interested in supporting a student, no matter how smart, who wants to study these dreadful weapons, particularly if she is interested in generating knowledge to help make better policy.[23]  Next, Isabel A looks at political science programs. They at least appear to share her interest in nuclear dynamics, so she enrolls.  But she finds herself spending most of her time taking methods classes, and instead of gaining substantive knowledge about the world, feels like she is being trained to become a mediocre statistician.  Reviewing the top journals and the results of the academic job market, she notes that this discipline appears to reward, at least some of the time, methodological prowess over original insight about international relations.[24] Depressingly, Isabel A. finds few colleagues or mentors who encourage her curiosity and enthusiasm for important, real world questions.  She is only thankful that the latest fad in the profession, natural experiments, cannot be applied to nuclear dynamics.[25]

Now imagine Isabel A, years later.  Fed up with the pathologies of the ivory tower, wanting to make a difference in the world, she becomes a national security official in the United States government.  She advises a principal on incredibly complex and dangerous problems – what to do about Iran and North Korea’s nuclear program, how to react to Japan’s and Saudi Arabia’s constant demand for reassurance, fears that the rivalry between India and Pakistan could spiral into a nuclear exchange..  Isabel A no longer possesses any tribal affiliations to a particular academic discipline or method – she is desperate for and will use any and all knowledge that can help her recommend the best policies and avoid catastrophe. Sadly, little of what the ivory tower offers is of use to her, and her policy colleagues are quite unimpressed with the cutting edge methods offered by her former discipline.[26]  Their efforts to forecast are lamentably bad; time and time again, her former friends and colleagues from the social sciences offer theories and predictions that are proven wrong by real world events, with few consequences for their careers and almost no self-correction.[27] International relations scholarship does not seem to recognize that there are no dichotomous, easy choices in her world; instead, she is confronted by radical uncertainty, unintended consequences, and the theory of second best.[28]  Looking over statistical studies of nuclear dynamics, she notes that even good estimates of average effects are of little help in making decisions, since they provide no insight into the causal mechanisms that are critical to understanding which policies to choose.[29] The one question she is desperate to know the answer to – why have nuclear weapons not been used since 1945, and what can keep that streak going – is rarely studied by her former community, since there is little incentive to pursue research where there is no variation on the dependent variable.[30]

Is this too harsh an assessment of our disciplines?  Perhaps.  But surely we can do better than we have in recent times.  As the wise namesake of the center I had the honor of being associated with, Bob Strauss, once said about foreign policy and national security, “This ain’t beanbag we’re playing.  These are big-time issues, this is life or death, this is the future of nations.”[31] Understanding nuclear weapons and their influence on world politics is too important, too consequential, to be driven by academic trendiness, methodological preening, or narrow disciplinary concerns.  Scholars should be honest about both the possibilities and limitations of our methods, and on the lookout for buried assumptions and even deeply hidden prejudices that affect our perspectives.[32]  Finally, we should keep Isabel A. in mind during this discussion.  Her experience wrestling with these issues likely makes her sympathetic to Jervis’s poignant reminder that these questions are as difficult as they are important, and willing to embrace his call for humility.  As we continue to discuss and debate these critical questions in an honest, rigorous, and transparent manner, so should we.

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[1] I am grateful to Mark Bell, Eliza Gheorghe, Nick Miller, Vipin Narang, Reid Pauly, and Jane Vaynman for their helpful insights. 

[2] Robert Jervis, “Why We Should Be Puzzled About Nuclear Weapons,” comments delivered to the MIT Security Studies Program Jack Ruina Nuclear Age Dinner, March 4, 2014, Hotel Marlowe, Cambridge, MA.

[3] Rather, I argued that the inability of their theories to explain far and away the most important case should give one pause, especially if you believe FKS’s N’s are inflated with cases where their theories are irrelevant.  Political scientist often talk about easy, hard, and critical cases for testing their theories – it would be difficult to imagine a case that should be easier for them to prove or more critical to their efforts than the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States between 1958 and 1962.

[4] Robert P.N. and Angel H. Roffo, “The forgotten father of experimental tobacco carcinogenesis,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2006; 84: 494–6. I might also puzzle over the disturbing (and long buried) historical fact that the earliest and most sophisticated epidemiological studies of the tobacco–cancer link were sponsored by Nazi Germany [Robert N. Proctor, The Nazi War on Cancer Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press; 1999].  Perhaps I would use archival research to better understand what cigarette makers knew about the links between smoking and cancer, and when they knew it.  K. Michael Cummings, Anthony Brown and Richard O'Connor, “The Cigarette Controversy,” Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev June 2007 16; 1070.

[5] John P. A. Ioannidis “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” PLOS – Medicine, August 30, 2005, found at http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020124.  For a recent journalistic account of the failure of large-scale biomedical studies to produce consistent, replicable results and determine causality, see George Johnson, “An Apple a Day, and Other Myths,” The New York Times, April 21, 2014, accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/22/science/an-apple-a-day-and-other-myths.html For evidence of a similar crisis emerging in the quantitative social sciences, see Jerry Adler, “The Reformation: Can Social Scientists Save Themselves?” April 28, 2014, Pacific Standard: The Science of Society, found at http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/can-social-scientists-save-themselves-human-behavior-78858/  It should be noted that the biomedical studies under question use statistical methods far more sophisticated, have far larger and cleaner “N’s”, and are more easily replicated than those of FKS.

[6] For an exemplary model that is both multi-method and takes the important selection effects problem head on, see Nicholas L. Miller, “The Secret Success of Nonproliferation Sanctions,” Forthcoming, International Organization, Fall 2014.  For an excellent paper that deals with the issues raised by FKS, see Jonathan Renshon, Vipin Narang, Arthur Spirling, and Jane Vaynman, “Fool's Gold: The Role of Nuclear Weapons in International Conflict,” Prepared for the 2014 Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Toronto, Ontario, March 2014. 

[7] In fact, they can be worse, since what might be thought of as the “hexing powers of science” and the methodological bullying that often takes place in the academy can have a chilling effect on debate and discussion. 

[8] In the same way that central bank monetary policy and antibiotics do not have the same effect over time as household/firms and bacteria learn and adapt, one can imagine leaders pursuing different policies over different points during a crisis based on “anticipatory adaptation” and interactive learning.  In other words, even if the military balance remained the same, United States policy during the Cuban Missile Crisis may have ended up much differently if the Kennedy administration had been forced to make a decision on October 16th, 1962, as opposed to having had almost two weeks to learn, interact, and adapt, coming up with a policy by October 27/28 few would have proposed earlier.  On monetary policy and antibiotics, see John H. Makin, “Endogeneity: Why policy and antibiotics fail,” January 30th, 2014, Outlook, American Enterprise Institute, http://www.aei.org/outlook/economics/monetary-policy/federal-reserve/endogeneity-why-policy-and-antibiotics-fail/

[9] Philip A. Schrodt, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Contemporary Quantitative Political Analysis, Journal of Peace Research 2014 51: 287.  For popular accounts highlighting the overselling of statistics and big data, see Tim Harford, “Big data: are we making a big mistake?” FT Magazine, March 28, 2014, accessed at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/21a6e7d8-b479-11e3-a09a-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2xa1MyJfW; Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis, “Eight (No, Nine!) Problems With Big Data,” The New York Times, April 6, 2014, accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/07/opinion/eight-no-nine-problems-with-big-data.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0   Needless to say, the data sets of FKS are far smaller and less homogenous than typical “big data” data sets, making these problems even more pronounced.

[10] “Funny Graphs show correlation between completely unrelated stats,” May 9th, 2014, found at http://twentytwowords.com/funny-graphs-show-correlation-between-completely-unrelated-stats-9-pictures/  For a more serious example of a failed effort to use big data to make correlations that ultimately were unconnected to causality, see the background behind the Google Flu Trends failure; Stephen Salzberg, “Why Google Flu is a Failure,” Forbes, March 23, 2014, available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2014/03/23/why-google-flu-is-a-failure/  For an analysis that says the real lesson from the Google Flu fiasco was better data, not more, see Kaiser Fung, “Google Flu Trends’ Failure Shows Good Data > Big Data,” Harvard Business Review Blog, March 25, 2014, available at http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/03/google-flu-trends-failure-shows-good-data-big-data/

[11] I am grateful to Vipin Narang for explaining these factors to me. 

[12] Michael D. Ward, Brian D. Greenhill, and Kristin M. Bakke, “The perils of policy by p-value: Predicting civil conflicts,” Journal of Peace Research July 2010 vol. 47 no. 4 363-375.  For an analysis of how widespread and troubling this issue is, see Regina Nuzzo, “Scientific method: Statistical errors,” Nature, February 12, 2014, found at http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-statistical-errors-1.14700

[13] See the discussion of selection effects on pp. 25-26 of my original essay, http://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/ISSF-Forum-2.pdf

[14] For an excellent summary of how historians have thought about statistics and big data in the past, and innovative suggestions for how to exploit these tools for understanding foreign policy and international affairs in the future without making the kinds of mistakes that mar the FKS efforts, see David Allen and Matthew Connelly’s unpublished paper, “Diplomatic History After the Big Bang: Using Computational Methods to Explore the Infinite Archive.” 

[15] Ibid., p. 6.  For Appleby’s assessment, see Joyce Appleby, “The Power of History,” American Historical Review 103 (1998): 5-6.   For a brief primer on the debate over Fogel and Engerman’s historical work, see Nicholas Crafts, “Robert Fogel, controversial scholar who pioneered ‘cliometrics’”, June 16, 2013, ft.com, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/72555a02-d504-11e2-b4d7-00144feab7de.html#axzz305rJyA4k

[16] Todd Sechser, Winning Without a Fight: Power, Reputation and Compellent Threats in International Crises, PhD Dissertation, Stanford University, 2007. 

[17] Matthew Fuhrmann, "Spreading Temptation: Proliferation and Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreements", International Security, volume 34, issue 1, summer 2009, p. 23.

[18] Matthew Kroenig, Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), p. 66.

[19] Vipin Narang, “The Promise and Limits of Quantitative Methods in Nuclear Studies.” 

[20] It is the extraordinary increase in the number, quality, and accessibility of archival sources from around the world related to nuclear dynamics that is one of the most compelling argument for encouraging both historians and political scientists to mine these new sources.  Wouldn’t it be far better to encourage Ph.D. students to generate new knowledge, policy insights and answer questions that until now have been hidden behind a wall of secrecy, instead of using statistics to manipulate old data sets built on sources that are increasingly obsolete, incomplete, or flat out wrong? 

[21] For this critique, see John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).  Gaddis also points out that statistics do a bad job of capturing the causal dynamics that often look less like a linear model and more like the punctuated equilibrium dynamics seen in evolutionary biology, like the sudden and unanticipated events that transformed Central Europe and the Soviet Union between1989 and 1991.

[22] For an excellent guide relevant to both historians and political scientists interested in international relations, see Marc Trachtenberg, The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method, (Princeton University Press, 2006).

[23] The steep decline in diplomatic and international history in American universities has been well noted.

“Job openings on the nation’s college campuses are scarce, while bread-and-butter courses like the Origins of War and American Foreign Policy are dropping from history department postings …. In 1975, for example, three-quarters of college history departments employed at least one diplomatic historian; in 2005 fewer than half did.” Patricia Cohen, “Great Caesar’s Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?” The New York Times, June 10, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/books/11hist.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0   Even those positions that are labeled diplomatic history rarely are held by scholars who study great power politics or the influence of nuclear weapons on international relations.  For an insightful piece highlighting these trends and lamenting the declining cooperation between historians and political scientists, see David Paul Nickles “Diplomatic History and the Political Science Wars”, Perspectives on History, May 2011, http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2011/political-history-today/diplomatic-history-and-the-political-science-wars

[24] Causing a renowned statistician to reveal his fears about the consequences of what and how he and his colleagues taught their brightest students. “I sometimes have a nightmare about Kepler. Suppose a few of us were transported back in time to the year 1600, and were invited by the Emperor Rudolph II to set up an Imperial Department of Statistics in the court at Prague. Despairing of those circular orbits, Kepler enrolls in our department. We teach him the general linear model, least squares, dummy variables, everything. He goes back to work, fits the best circular orbit for Mars by least squares, puts in a dummy variable for the exceptional observation, and publishes. And that's the end, right there in Prague at the beginning of the 17th century." David A. Freedman, “Statistics and the scientific method,” in W.M. Mason & S.E. Fienberg (Eds.), Cohort analysis in social research: Beyond the identification problem (New York: Springer-Verlag), 1985. I thank Reid Pauley for bringing this to my attention.  For a recent “inside baseball” critique of rewarding shoddy statistical work in political science, see Schrodt, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Contemporary Quantitative Political Analysis.”  This trend towards methods over substance has led to far less emphasis on theory and more on “hypothesis testing,” which has resulted in research questions being more narrow, less interesting, and of decreasing appeal to anyone outside of the political science discipline.  See John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “Leaving theory behind: Why simplistic hypothesis testing is bad for International Relations,” European Journal of International Relations, September 2013 vol. 19 no. 3 427-457, online copy available at http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/Leaving%20Theory%20Behind%20EJIR.pdf

[25] A nuclear deterrence failure being one experiment we all hope is never run.  For a very interesting and innovative article that uses experiments to test norms and measure attitudes towards nuclear use, see Daryl G. Press, Scott Sagan, and Benjamin A. Valentino, “Atomic Aversion: Experimental Evidence on Taboos, Traditions, and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons” in the American Political Science Review (February 2013). 

[26] “Aside from economics, the scholarly disciplines policymakers found of greatest interest were area studies and history….compared to other disciplines, political science did poorly.”  This is especially true of non-qualitative approaches.  “Conversely, the more sophisticated social science methods such as formal models, operations research, theoretical analysis, and quantitative analysis tended to be categorized more often as “not very useful” or “not useful at all,” calling into question the direct influence of these approaches to international relations.”  See Paul C. Avery and Michael C. Desch, “What Do Policymakers Want From Us? Results of a Survey of Current and Former Senior National Security Decision Makers,” International Studies Quarterly, 2013, 1-20, accessed at http://www.phibetaiota.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Carnegie-Stimson-Article-On-SocSci-and-Policy.pdf   Despite the utility of history to policy, however, many of Isabel A.’s friends from history departments might condemn her decision to work with the U.S. government and view her as a sell-out.

[27] As Philip Tetlock famously demonstrated, experts are no better at forecasting the future of world politics than non-experts, and are often much worse.  Professionally, experts – unlike decision-makers -- almost never suffer consequences for their bad predictions.  See Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton University Press, 2006); for a nice summary, see Louis Menand, “Everybody’s an Expert: Putting Predictions to the Test,” The New Yorker, December 5, 2005, available at http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205crbo_books1?currentPage=all   Economists -- a group many political scientists want to emulate and even appear to envy – are even worse at forecasting, as their disastrous record in the period leading up to the 2008-09 financial crisis reveal.  See Tim Harford, “An astonishing record – of complete failure :‘ In 2008, the consensus from forecasters was that not a single economy would fall into recession in 2009’” The Financial Times, May 30, 2014, available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/14e323ee-e602-11e3-aeef-00144feabdc0.html#axzz33DAqOJ92

[28] Francis J. Gavin and James B. Steinberg, “Mind the Gap: Why Policymakers and Scholars Ignore Each other, and What Can be Done About it?,” Carnegie Reporter, Spring 2012, available at http://carnegie.org/publications/carnegie-reporter/single/view/article/item/308/

[29] Though perhaps we should not idealize Isabel A’s policy life.  As an unnamed but sharp observer who knows both worlds well pointed out, a more realistic description of Isabel’s life might be: “Isabel advises a principal on complex nuclear dynamics. Unfortunately, her boss already knows how those work, and asks her to finds ways to support his views. Isabel spends most of her time writing talking points and clearing them three times over with twenty different offices, then the Secretary's office just changes them anyway. She hears that some friends in Policy Planning are interested in thinking about future emerging issues in nuclear proliferation, but who can get a job there? Desperate, Isabel considers becoming a Republican in order to land a political appointee slot in the next election. Or going back to grad school."  For a humorous take on this process as it relates to think tanks, see Jeremy Shapiro “Who Influences Whom? Reflections on U.S. Government Outreach to Think Tanks” Brookings, June 4th, 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2014/06/04-us-government-outreach-think-tanks-shapiro?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=%2ASituation%20Report&utm_campaign=2014_Situation%20Report

[30] For the difficulty but necessary task of exploring the history of what hasn’t happened – a thermonuclear war – see Francis J. Gavin, “How Dangerous? History and Nuclear Alarmism” in A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security, eds. John Mueller and Christopher Preble (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2014).

[31] Robert S. Strauss, last United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union and first to Russia, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quoted in Terry Atlas and Timothy J. McNulty, “Nixon Offers A Lesson for Bush,” Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1992.

[32] For a remarkably thoughtful meditation on methods and diversity that is relevant to both quantitative and qualitative approaches, see Christopher Achen, “Why Do We Need Diversity in the Political Methodology Society,” April 30th, 2014, The Political Methodologist, http://thepoliticalmethodologist.com/2014/04/30/we-dont-just-teach-statistics-we-teach-students/

 

From: Marc Trachtenberg, UCLA

In Response to the H-Diplo/ISSF Forum on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons”  http://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/ISSF-Forum-2.pdf:

How does international politics work in a nuclear world?  What kinds of political effects do nuclear weapons have?   Scholars have long been concerned with issues of this sort, and last year two important articles came out that tackled the issue using statistical methods:  “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail,” by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, and “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve,” by Matthew Kroenig. 

What is to be made of that general approach to the issue?  As Frank Gavin’s H-Diplo/ISSF review article shows, many historians (and some political scientists as well) wonder about how much insight that kind of analysis provides us with.  It is not that the skeptics deny that statistical analysis can ever give us a handle on a real problem.  Sechser, Kroenig, and Fuhrmann, in their jointly-authored reply to Gavin’s piece, point to the work that strongly suggests that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer as an example of the sort of statistical analysis that can generate important results, and few people today would disagree with that claim.  But by looking more closely at that example we can perhaps get a better sense of  what the real problem here is.

Suppose we lived in a world (like parts of occupied Germany after World War II[1]) in which cigarettes were used as money, in which rich people therefore had more cigarettes than poor people, and in which the poor (presumably because they smoked more) had a higher incidence of cancer than the rich.  A statistical analysis that looked simply at the link between possession of cigarettes and cancer would yield misleading conclusions.  It would suggest that the mere possession of cigarettes would actually reduce the risk of cancer.

The statistical analyses we are talking about here focus on the question of whether nuclear stockpiles, by their very existence, would automatically have certain effects.  Sechser and Fuhrmann, for example, seek to examine the claim that “the mere possession of nuclear weapons” casts “a coercive shadow over crisis bargaining, whenever a nuclear state issues a threat, even if nuclear weapons are never mentioned.” And they conclude that the claim is false.  “Our analysis demonstrates,” they say, “that neither nuclear possession nor nuclear superiority enhance the effectiveness of compellent threats.”[2] [emphasis added]. 

As the cigarette case shows, however, it is risky to assume that “mere possession” should be the key variable.  To frame the analysis properly, we need a theory that links cause with effect.  In the case of tobacco, this would be the theory that the act of smoking triggers a physiological process that might well eventually lead to lung cancer.  In the nuclear case, this would be the theory that a sense that nuclear weapons might ultimately be used is bound to condition political behavior. 

The point is important because in most cases of coercion where at least one power is nuclear-armed, no one actually thought that there was any real risk that nuclear weapons would be used.  Looking back from today’s perspective, no one actually thinks that the fact that America was a nuclear power had anything to do, for example (to use a case listed by Sechser and Fuhrmann), with the way the Haitian affair of 1994 ran its course.  And very few scholars, I imagine, would (to take one of Kroenig’s cases) view the Nicaragua affair of 1984 as a “nuclear crisis.”  So why should the analysis of a data set composed mostly of such cases tell us anything about the questions we’re really interested in, and especially the question of whether nuclear forces ever can be used to support a coercive policy?  And if we’re only interested in cases where people sensed there was a real risk of nuclear escalation, then the number of cases we would want to examine would shrink substantially.  It would be so small, in fact, that large-N methods would probably not be appropriate—so small that traditional historical methods would probably generate more insight.

But even when standard historical methods are used (as Fuhrmann, Kroenig, and Sechser note in their reply to Gavin), they don’t automatically provide us with answers to many of the questions we’d like to answer.  We’re interested in the problem of causation, and when we say that something is a cause of something else, we’re suggesting that if that something hadn’t happened, all other things being equal, things would have turned out differently.  To say that the prospect of nuclear escalation affected the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis implies that such a crisis would not have run its course in much the same way in a non-nuclear world.  But no one knows for sure what would have happened, if everything had been the same, except for the presence of nuclear weapons.  It is not even clear that such a question is meaningful, since this was a crisis about the presence of nuclear weapons.  The best an historian can do, in such cases, is do a counterfactual thought experiment:  you draw on your general understanding about how international politics works, and you reach what strikes you as a plausible conclusion about what would have happened if things had been different.  But strictly speaking such thought experiments have no evidentiary value; our thinking about causation relies to a much greater extent on supposition and theorizing than people realize.

In statistical analysis one often has to deal with the same sort of problem.  Certain relevant non-events, simply because they never actually occur, do not make their way into the data set being analyzed, leading to the well-known problem of “strategic selection bias.”  Sechser and Fuhrmann, for example, argue that “compellent threats from nuclear states are no more likely to succeed” than compellent threats from non-nuclear states, but this may simply be because, in the former case, the pressure is so strong and effective that overt compellent threats do not have to be made (or, in the latter case, so weak and ineffective that such threats cannot be made) and such cases have thus not been included in the sample.[3]

Consider, for example, a couple of cases involving Germany and Russia during the Cold War.  The Soviets clearly did not want the Federal Republic to develop a nuclear capability; it was widely assumed that they might well use force if West Germany moved in that direction, and that the use of force might eventually involve the use of nuclear weapons.  Suppose West Germany remained non-nuclear because the Germans did not want to run the risk of triggering such a war.  What would the general idea “that nuclear weapons are not useful for compellence” imply in this particular case?[4]   It would suggest that if the USSR did not possess a nuclear capability—and that if everything was the same except for that—then things would have run their course in much the same way.  But suppose one simply does not find that conclusion plausible, and that one believes that a non-nuclear USSR would have found it much harder to compel the Federal Republic, protected as it was by a great nuclear power like the United States, to remain non-nuclear.  Suppose further that because this imaginary non-nuclear USSR knew that it could not compel the Germans to remain non-nuclear that no threats of military action were ever made in the first place.  Then this case—a major case of nuclear weapons making a difference—would simply not enter the sample. 

Similarly, imagine how things would have been different, in terms of Soviet-German relations during the Cold War, if the Germans did have a nuclear capability of their own.  It is by no means obvious that the Germans would have been as accommodating as they were during the Ostpolitik period and after.  But again, this pair of cases—one marked by a non-nuclear Germany and the absence of coercive threats made by such a state, and the other the hypothetical case of a nuclear Germany and its imagined political behavior—are not, and indeed cannot be, included in the sample.

For such reasons, the sample of observed cases is bound to be skewed, and this in turn is bound to have a certain bearing on the sorts of inferences that can be drawn from an analysis of that set of cases.  As James Fearon put the point in an important article, “the cases we observe rarely arise from anything like the process of random assignment of independent variables assumed by statistical models,” and if we are not sufficiently sensitive to how the selection process that generates observed data works, the inferences we draw might well be wrong.[5]

This is the kind of problem that makes historians like me uneasy about statistical analyses of the sort being considered here.  Perhaps statisticians have found a way to work around these problems.  I have no idea whether or not that is the case.  I personally have never studied statistics in any serious way and I don’t even have a rough feel for what this kind of analysis can accomplish, so I can’t be too categorical in what I say.  I’m sure that many scholars, not just historians but the more qualitatively-minded political scientists, feel much the same way.  But that doesn’t mean that these issues of method should not be discussed openly and honestly.  If our concerns are baseless, it would be great if people who have mastered these methods can explain to us, in ordinary language, why that is the case.

Marc Trachtenberg

Political Science Department

University of California at Los Angeles

 

 

 

 



[1] Tobacco was also at times used as money in colonial America.  Virginia, as one writer notes, “legislated tobacco as the official currency of the colony in 1619.”  Alvin Rabuschka, Taxation in Colonial America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 233.  See also Clarence P. Gould, Money and Transportation in Virginia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1915), chap. 3.

[2] Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail,” International Organization 67 (Winter 2013), p. 174 (where I was one of the people listed as having argued along those lines), and p. 190 (emphasis added).

[3] Ibid., p. 173.

[4] Ibid., p. 185.

[5] James Fearon, “Selection Effects and Deterrence,” International Interactions: Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations 28, no. 1  (2002), p. 24.

 

From: Robert Jervis , Columbia University

Both Frank Gavin and Marc Trachtenberg question the inclusion of some of the cases in nuclear confrontation databases. They argue that we would not expect nuclear weapons, or at least the specifics of the nuclear balance, to have any role in such instances as the conflict over the deployment of MIGs to Nicaragua in 1984, the American intervention in Haiti in 1994, or the attempts to coerce Serbia in the 1990s. I agree, and think this raises the interesting question for qualitative as well as quantitative scholars of when we should expect nuclear weapons to matter.

In fact, I do not think we have good theories here. The intuition behind the point made by Gavin and Trachtenberg is that these disputes simply did not involve the interests of both superpowers enough for us to expect nuclear weapons to matter. I agree, but we need to have more firm underpinnings for this claim and better guidelines for what should and should not be included in relevant databases. To take another example, I do not think anyone would want to argue that the American inability to coerce Saddam Hussein in 2002-03 says much about theories of nuclear coercion. It does raise questions about coercion in general, of course – according to many theories the American threats “should” have been credible because of the United States’ overwhelming conventional superiority and its previous displays of its willingness to use force.[1] But this would have been true even if the U.S. had no nuclear weapons. (Many would argue – although this can be disputed – that the interaction would have been quite different if Iraq had had any nuclear weapons at all. This is related to the parallel counterfactual for the Gulf War and the policy question of whether Iraq’s behavior would have become very different had the U.S. not invaded and Iraq had gone on to develop nuclear weapons.[2])

Selection effects also poses a problem for both quantitative and qualitative research, and again should force us to try to sharpen our theories. As Trachtenberg stresses, and the other articles in the symposium note, we generally study events rather than non-events, and challenges, especially to a nuclear-armed power, do not come at random. The most pervasive and cheapest forms of influence allow states to prevail without an overt confrontation. Trachtenberg uses counterfactual reasoning on this point, and a related method is to ask what alternative theories would have led us to expect about whether confrontations would have occurred had one or both nuclear-armed states lacked them.[3] In some cases, case-studies might get at this if the record revealed decision-makers saying that they would have issued a challenge (or, if challenged, that they would have stood firm) had the other side not possessed nuclear weapons. But such introspection is rarely voiced. In any case, this is a good reminder that no matter what methods we use, we should always keep selection effects and non-events in mind.

Robert Jervis, Columbia University

 

 

 

 



[1] For a good discussion of this puzzle, see Dianne Pfundstein, “Credibility is Not Enough:  The Effectiveness of U.S. Compellent Threats 1945-2011,” (unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 2012).

[2] Barry Posen, “U.S. Security Policy in a Nuclear-Armed World, or: What If Iraq Had Had Nuclear Weapons?” Security Studies, Vol. 6, Spring 1997, 1-31; John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “An Unnecessary War,” Foreign Policy, No. 134, Jan./Feb. 2003, 50-59; Robert Jervis, “The Confrontation Between Iraq and the United States: Implications for the Theory and Practice of Deterrence,” European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 9, June 2003, 315-38.

[3] For a related debate, see John Mueller, “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World,” International Security, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall 1988, 55-79 and Robert Jervis, “The Political Influence of Nuclear Weapons,” International Security, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall 1988, 80-90.

 

From: Tom Nichols, Naval War College

In Response to the H-Diplo/ISSF Forum on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons”  http://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/ISSF-Forum-2.pdf:

            Having now read Francis Gavin’s remarkable and lucid response to Matthew Fuhrmann, Matthew Kroenig, and Todd Sechser, my immediate reaction is that I am mildly depressed that Gavin had to write it at all. Historians in this discussion, like Marc Trachtenberg, share Gavin’s unease, but so do more than a few political scientists and policy analysts, including me.

            In one sense, this debate in the rest of political science is mostly over. Quantification is now the lifeblood of political science, or more accurately, of the political science literature. (This, I think, is why so many new schools of policy and international studies are breaking off from traditional political science departments with whom they now share almost no interests, but that’s a larger issue for another day.) The entire enterprise of questionable comparison and quantification is now built into the system. Put another way, as far as major political science departments go, the awkward pretense to scientific generalization is now a feature, not a bug.

            What Gavin has zeroed in on, however, is that the issues raised in Robert Jervis’s address represent a unique set of questions that cannot be resolved with better coding, or more cases, or more complicated statistical acrobatics. As I argue in my response to a coming H-Diplo roundtable on my own work in this area,[1] where nuclear war between two nuclear-armed states is concerned, the universe of cases is exactly zero. We can look at that from every possible angle, but we still come up with the same number.

            Obviously, if we want to study crises, or wars, or peacemaking, we have thousands of cases. We can argue about their comparability, we can haggle over their historical peculiarities, we can bicker about how to code them. But when it comes to the decision to use a nuclear weapon against a nuclear-armed opponent, we have no case where the line was crossed and the “go” decision was made.

            I realize that the answer to this objection is always that we have so many “close-enough” cases that we can quantify them – although, as Scott Sagan correctly notes, we can also end up disingenuously dumping any one of them if they get too troublesome, which lets such studies off the hook too easily. I think it’s an answer that comes out of desperation among younger scholars who have to hammer those square pegs into round holes as if their careers depended on it, because in fact, their careers do depend on it. (Gavin’s story of the hypothetical “Isabel A.” should be required reading for every first-year graduate student.)

            As Gavin notes, this disciplinary insistence on statistical methods creates glaring problems, not least because we lose sight of the way historical events were interpreted in order to turn them into “data” in the first place: “Dig deeper,” he writes, “and it becomes obvious that those numbers often reflect similar untested assumptions, biases, and interpretations, and are no more scientific that qualitative accounts.” They may not produce much illumination, especially for policy makers, but they make for nice charts.

            This isn’t such a terrible problem if we’re talking either about less important issues, or about subjects (of which there are many) that lend themselves to quantification. Even there, however, it is not hard to trip over comments like that of Keith Poole, who, when asked about the model he used to show how partisanship has increased in Congress, noted: “This is an entirely objective statistical procedure. The graphs just reflect what comes out of the computer” – as if the computer were like the one on the bridge of the starship Enterprise and had a mind of its own that made its findings unarguable.[2]

            That kind of approach washes out something Jervis marks as important in his address, the point Gavin repeats about the “strangeness” of the nuclear world. This is a notion that I think actively annoys some scholars, especially younger ones who see the experience of Cold War as just so much emotional baggage.

            I don’t want to plow the same ground that Gavin goes over, at least not too much. I do want to second his point, however, that given the “potentially horrific consequences of any nuclear crises, this is one subject where I am not as interested in ‘averages.”

            This kind of stubborn insistence on aggregation in the name of comparison, to me, repeats the errors of the strategists of the 1960s, who “conventionalized” questions about nuclear arms because it was simply too hard to think of them as they really were, a problem described over thirty years ago by Fred Kaplan in The Wizards of Armageddon. Strategists, he wrote, “performed their calculations and spoke in their strange and esoteric tongues because to do otherwise would be to recognize, all too clearly and constantly, the ghastliness of their contemplations.”[3]

            And yet, a half-century later, here we are again.

            Why is qualitative work regarded so unkindly by FKS and by so many other scholars? Again, I find it dispiriting that Gavin even had to write what he wrote. “FKS and others like them,” he rightly notes, “should be especially grateful for this rigor [in qualitative work], as this qualitative work is the basis for the inputs into their models, even if careless coding at times simplifies complex historical findings into blunt variables.” I am not an historian, but coming from among the now-vanquished tribe of the regionalists, I am continually troubled by the lack of interest in history and national culture as little more than raw material for models.

            For a time, the people studying nuclear issues, especially the dynamics of Soviet-American deterrent relations, could argue that lack of information hobbled deeper case consideration, and the default Red on Blue models were the best we could do. That was never true, but it was at least a defensible position until the 1990s, when a great deal of information finally became available. And yet, as Bill Wohlforth pointed out in the very first edition of the Journal of Cold War Studies, IR scholars seemed almost entirely uninterested in those materials.[4]

            This was a revealing moment in the study of international security. I think the lack of interest in those revelations was directly related to the problem that underpins the insistence on quantification today: to dive into the peculiarities of the cases makes them too complex for too much generalization – not for any generalization, but certainly not at the level of “science” – and so there is no point in going through the drudgery of learning a lot of historical and cultural detail if the only result will be the slaying of beautiful theories with ugly facts.

            In other words, nuclear studies suffer from the same problem that afflicts the discipline of modern international relations: deep knowledge of particular cases is much harder to attain than overall mastery of theory and methods; and so, because qualitative work threatens to undermine the aspiration to universal conclusions, it must be avoided.

            I think this is what also drives the lack of policy relevance Gavin laments at the end of his response. I find this particularly disturbing; when I went to Washington as a young professor to work for a time advising a Senator on nuclear issues relating to the Soviet Union (it was 1990, and we thought more nuclear treaties were afoot), I found that very little in my academic preparation at three top universities was of much use in helping an actual political decision-maker. Being a “knower” with some common sense was valued more than being a “theorizer.” And I was fortunate; at least some of my graduate work was with more traditional thinkers on these issues (like Jervis, actually) that gave me a more solid footing than some of the others around me, but I can’t imagine things have improved since the 1980s.

            Political science is the study of human beings, and was once a normative endeavor. Nowhere are these more necessary realizations than in thinking about the use of nuclear weapons, which will be decisions made by people almost certain to be completely untutored in statistical models or theories. As Jeffrey Lewis wrote some years ago, policymakers are “unlikely to consult force exchange ratios...when contemplating a nuclear war,” and that “despite the fine calculations of strategic planners,” political leaders will “recoil at the terrible destructiveness of nuclear war” at practically any level.[5]

            If we do not have better answers for these national leaders about those life and death questions, they will cease asking us – as they seem to have done already – and instead turn to political advisors and partisans whose answers will make us regret our intellectual absence from the policy arena more than we do already.



[1] No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

[2] Frank James, “Political Scientist: Republicans Most Conservative They've Been In 100 Years,” NPR.org, April 13, 2012.

[3] Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Stanford: Standford Univ. Press, 1983), 391.

[4] I discussed this debate on H-Diplo in a review essay on Wohlforth, “Brezhnev's Elephant: Why can't international relations theory integrate new revelations about the Cold War and the role of ideology in it?” archived at http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hpcws/comment4.htm

[5] Jeffrey G. Lewis, “Minimum Deterrence,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July–/August 2008.

 

Where’s the Story?: The Role of Historians in Nuclear Studies

In the early pages of his monumental 1939 study of the interwar period and the failure of various high priests of liberal internationalism to foresee or avert the coming war, E. H. Carr reminded his readers of how thinkers alter the reality in which they write. In the passage, he suggested that scientists and social scientists deal with fundamentally different subjects. While scientists deal in matter, the social scientist lives within the very society that he seeks to analyze and understand, and about which he wants to change others' minds.

"The laboratory worker engaged in investigating the causes of cancer … cannot help to make the facts other than they are; for the facts exist independently of what anyone thinks about them. In the political sciences, which are concerned with human behavior, there are no such facts. The investigator is inspired by the desire to cure some ill of the body politic. Among the causes of the trouble, he diagnoses the fact that human beings normally react to certain conditions in a certain way. But this is not a fact comparable with the fact that human bodies react in a certain way to certain drugs. It is a fact which may be changed by the desire to change it; and this desire, already present in the mind of the investigator, may be extended, as the result of his investigation, to a sufficient number of other human beings to make it effective. The purpose is not, as in the physical sciences, irrelevant to the investigation and separable from it: it is itself one of the facts.”[1]

Even though Carr seems to have been unaware of Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” published twelve years earlier, social scientists then and now tend not to scrutinize themselves or their motivations before they begin to act. We presume our own dispassion in the face of our principles, backgrounds, and workaday imperative whose subconscious pressures mold our work.

A multi-methodological or interdisciplinary approach is therefore helpful for arriving step-by-step at a useful approximation of the truth. For this reason, historians can assist political scientists by questioning their methods and determinations. It redounds to our collective benefit that Frank Gavin, Marc Trachtenberg, and Hal Brands, along with their interlocturs among political scientists--Scott Sagan, Vipin Narang, Matthew Kroenig, Matthew Fuhrmann, Todd Sechlser, and Erik Gartzke--have embarked upon this journey together.

By convening a conference of the Nuclear Studies Research Initiative last year, Gavin, alongside Jane Vayman, brought us together, setting in motion this dialogue. As Gavin, Trachtenberg, Brands, and Tom Nichols have underscored, historians' depth of knowledge in our areas of expertise and our fine-tuned skepticism make us resonant sounding boards for our political science colleagues.

That being said, the scope and temper of this forum could give the impression that historians are mainly useful as critics. In my estimation, we as historians should beware losing sight of our traditional roles as storytellers, searchers, and synthesizers whose interpretations bring a measure of intelligibility to the complexity of human activity over time, especially in a field as contested and as consequential as nuclear security.

The large-n revolution has undeniably aided in discovering new and sometimes counterintuitive correlations. But as Gavin, Trachtenberg, and Nichols have underscored, it can also rationalize a belief in one's own objecitive distance from debates that are deeply political and whose final outcomes are entangled with both the subject matter (say, the Iranian nuclear program) and the argument (say, the superiority of relying on multilateral diplomacy or unilateral action in efforts to forestall an Iranian military nuclear capability).

Carr was wise to note that an analyst cannot observe the totality of his subject because in the course of his observations he will alter it. Thus, we should stay mindful of scholarship's ability to change the subject, and vice versa.

Academic history, in my opinion, has done a better job of acknowledging these entanglements. We as a discipline accepted long ago that objectivity was an elusive ideal and that lacking the invention of a time machine that would allow us to run and re-run experiments (imagine the IRB request for that research!), the best we can offer are plausible stories and counterfactuals about cause and effect whose sources, data, and interpretations hold up to rigorous questioning.[2] The right analogy for historians is accordingly a courtroom rather than a laboratory.

Now, doubtlessly, a relativistic approach can go too far; activism should not masquerade as scholarship on the lone condition that authors cop to their political affiliations. The rules of logic must apply and the sources upon which interpretations rest must be replicable, meaning that citations and quotations are accurate, which permits researchers to locate the document or artifact in question so as to ascertain whether or not it was faithfully represented.

What strikes me about the conversation thus far, however, is a lack of attention to the interpretive work that historians are trained to do in favor of a sort of fact-checking posture toward political scientists' generalizations.

Gavin, Brands, Trachtenberg, and Professor Jervis have made an important contribution in encouraging their peers to scrutinize how they code events, whether a particular event is reducible to a binary, and whether subjects such as nuclear proliferation or nuclear crises are amenable to large-n analysis when the numbers are so vanishingly small and the exceptions just as important (if not more) than the proverbial rule.

It seems to me, however, that historians ought to bring more to the table. First, historians are trained to handle change over time whereas political scientists deal in truth claims whose veracity is supposedly fixed. In other words, historians deal in what an economist would call "secular trends," whereas political scientists deal in eternals (here, Narang's recent work is a notable exception).

Second, historians are highly attuned to the importance of context (inter alia, geopolitical, intellectual, military, social, economic, domestic, cultural, ideological, environmental, and global integrative), which helps us to follow the twists and turns from year to year while connecting nuclear subjects to related phenomena.

Finally, historians are generally more attentive to ideas, ideologies, and assumptions. There is, of course, much more to be said about this, but as Carr and others such as Richard Neustadt and Ernest May have noted, the stories we tell ourselves and our audiences about nuclear weapons matter; they construct the mental universe in which we and policymakers gather intelligence, winnow options, and make decisions.[3] They also affect how our students and civil society more broadly think about and agitate upon such momentous questions as nuclear diplomacy, deterrence postures, force-sizing, peace, and war.

As such, I hope that historians now working on nuclear subjects will set their sights on participating in this dialogue as active debaters ready to stake out theoretical positions. Lumping is just as necessary a splitting. Among the new generation of nuclear historians that Trachtenberg and Gavin, together with David Holloway, Jeremi Suri, David Reynolds, Matthew Jones, John Lewis Gaddis, H. W. Brands, and others, have mentored, stand young scholars who aspire to more than fact-checking their coevals in the political sciences.

In summary, political scientists might do well to heed Carr’s observation and ponder why they study what they study, what assumptions they bring to their investigations, and how their scholarship will affect the world around them.

Historians, for their part, might challenge themselves to take on big questions if they want to leave an imprint on what Scott Sagan called in this forum's introduction a “renaissance” in nuclear studies.

The stack of important works in nuclear history since 1991 is towering. New sources from the former Eastern bloc and the developing world have let scholars chronicle nuclear programs that were before shrouded in secretary. Today, historians must continue bringing new facts to light, but they might also ruminate upon Carr’s observation that scholarship flows from a “desire to cure some ill of the body politic” and in this spirit find grounds upon which to propose a course of treatment, or at least new ways of looking at the postwar world through a nuclear prism.[4]


[1] Edward Hallett Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939; an Introduction to the Study of International Relations (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 4-5.

[2] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Ideas in Context (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[3] Richard E. Neustadt, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York : London: Free Press ; Collier Macmillan, 1986).

[4] Some exemplary recent works in this vein include: Benoît Pelopidas, “The Oracles of Proliferation: How Experts Maintain a Biased Historical Reading That Limits Policy Innovation,” The Nonproliferation Review 18, no. 1 (March 2011): 297–314; Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and David Holloway’s forthcoming international history of nuclear weapons.

 

[Ed. Note- Due to technical difficulties, the following response was posted to the list with three typographic errors ("imperative" instead of "imperatives," "secretary" instead of "secrecy," and the spelling of Todd Sechser's name). A corrected copy of the post is published below].

Where’s the Story?: The Role of Historians in Nuclear Studies
Jonathan R. Hunt

In the early pages of his monumental 1939 study of the interwar period and the failure of various high priests of liberal internationalism to foresee or avert the coming war, E. H. Carr reminded his readers of how thinkers alter the reality in which they write. In the passage, he suggested that scientists and social scientists deal with fundamentally different subjects. While scientists deal in matter, the social scientist lives within the very society that he seeks to analyze and understand, and about which he wants to change others' minds.

"The laboratory worker engaged in investigating the causes of cancer … cannot help to make the facts other than they are; for the facts exist independently of what anyone thinks about them. In the political sciences, which are concerned with human behavior, there are no such facts. The investigator is inspired by the desire to cure some ill of the body politic. Among the causes of the trouble, he diagnoses the fact that human beings normally react to certain conditions in a certain way. But this is not a fact comparable with the fact that human bodies react in a certain way to certain drugs. It is a fact which may be changed by the desire to change it; and this desire, already present in the mind of the investigator, may be extended, as the result of his investigation, to a sufficient number of other human beings to make it effective. The purpose is not, as in the physical sciences, irrelevant to the investigation and separable from it: it is itself one of the facts.”[i]

Even though Carr seems to have been unaware of Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” published twelve years earlier, social scientists then and now tend not to scrutinize themselves or their motivations before they begin to act. We presume our own dispassion in the face of our principles, backgrounds, and workaday imperatives whose pressures mold our work consciously and subconsciously.

A multi-methodological or interdisciplinary approach is therefore helpful for arriving step-by-step at a useful approximation of the truth. For this reason, historians can assist political scientists by questioning their methods and determinations. It redounds to our collective benefit that Frank Gavin, Marc Trachtenberg, and Hal Brands, along with their interlocutors among political scientists--Scott Sagan, Vipin Narang, Matthew Kroenig, Matthew Fuhrmann, Todd Sechser, and Erik Gartzke--have embarked upon this journey together.

By convening a conference of the Nuclear Studies Research Initiative last year, Gavin, alongside Jane Vaynman, brought us together, setting in motion this dialogue. As Gavin, Trachtenberg, Brands, and Tom Nichols have underscored, historians' depth of knowledge in our areas of expertise and our fine-tuned skepticism make us resonant sounding boards for our political science colleagues.

That being said, the scope and temper of this forum could give the impression that historians are mainly useful as critics. In my estimation, we as historians should beware losing sight of our traditional roles as storytellers, searchers, and synthesizers whose interpretations bring a measure of intelligibility to the complexity of human activity over time, especially in a field as contested and as consequential as nuclear security.

The large-n revolution has undeniably aided in discovering new and sometimes counterintuitive correlations. But as Gavin, Trachtenberg, and Nichols have underscored, it can also rationalize a belief in one's own objective distance from debates that are deeply political and whose final outcomes are entangled with both the subject matter (say, the Iranian nuclear program) and the argument (say, the superiority of relying on multilateral diplomacy or unilateral action in efforts to forestall an Iranian military nuclear capability).

Carr was wise to note that an analyst cannot observe the totality of his subject because in the course of his observations he will alter it. Thus, we should stay mindful of scholarship's ability to change the subject, and vice versa.

Academic history, in my opinion, has done a better job of acknowledging these entanglements. We as a discipline accepted long ago that objectivity was an elusive ideal and that lacking the invention of a time machine that would allow us to run and re-run experiments (imagine the IRB request for that research!), the best we can offer are plausible stories and counterfactuals about cause and effect whose sources, data, and interpretations hold up to rigorous questioning.[ii] The right analogy for historians is accordingly a courtroom rather than a laboratory.

Now, doubtlessly, a relativistic approach can go too far; activism should not masquerade as scholarship on the lone condition that authors cop to their political affiliations. The rules of logic must apply and the sources upon which interpretations rest must be replicable, meaning that citations and quotations are accurate, which permits researchers to locate the document or artifact in question so as to ascertain whether or not it was faithfully represented.

What strikes me about the conversation thus far, however, is a lack of attention to the interpretive work that historians are trained to do in favor of a sort of fact-checking posture toward political scientists' generalizations.

Gavin, Brands, Trachtenberg, and Professor Jervis have made an important contribution in encouraging their peers to scrutinize how they code events, whether a particular event is reducible to a binary, and whether subjects such as nuclear proliferation or nuclear crises are amenable to large-n analysis when the numbers are so vanishingly small and the exceptions just as important (if not more) than the proverbial rule.

It seems to me, however, that historians ought to bring more to the table. First, historians are trained to handle change over time whereas political scientists deal in truth claims whose veracity is supposedly fixed. In other words, historians deal in what an economist would call "secular trends," whereas political scientists deal in eternals (here, Vipin Narang's recent work is a notable exception).

Second, historians are highly attuned to the importance of context (inter alia, geopolitical, intellectual, military, social, economic, domestic, cultural, ideological, environmental, and global integrative), which helps us to follow the twists and turns from year to year while connecting nuclear subjects to related phenomena.

Finally, historians are generally more attentive to ideas, ideologies, and assumptions. There is, of course, much more to be said about this, but as Carr and others such as Richard Neustadt and Ernest May have noted, the stories we tell our audiences and ourselves about nuclear weapons matter; they construct the mental universe in which we and policymakers gather intelligence, winnow options, and make decisions.[iii] They also affect how our students and civil society more broadly think about and agitate upon such momentous questions as nuclear diplomacy, deterrence postures, force-sizing, peace, and war.

As such, I hope that historians now working on nuclear subjects will set their sights on participating in this dialogue as active debaters ready to stake out theoretical positions. Lumping is just as necessary a splitting. Among the new generation of nuclear historians that Trachtenberg and Gavin, together with David Holloway, Jeremi Suri, David Reynolds, Matthew Jones, John Lewis Gaddis, H. W. Brands, and others, have mentored, stand young scholars who aspire to more than fact-checking their coevals in the political sciences.

In summary, political scientists might do well to heed Carr’s observation and ponder why they study what they study, what assumptions they bring to their investigations, and how their scholarship will affect the world around them.

Historians, for their part, might challenge themselves to take on big questions if they want to leave an imprint on what Scott Sagan called in this forum's introduction a “renaissance” in nuclear studies.

The stack of important works in nuclear history since 1991 is towering. New sources from the former Eastern bloc and the developing world have let scholars chronicle nuclear programs that were before shrouded in secrecy. Today, historians must continue bringing new facts to light, but they might also ruminate upon Carr’s observation that scholarship flows from a “desire to cure some ill of the body politic” and in this spirit find grounds upon which to propose a course of treatment, or at least new ways of looking at the postwar world through a nuclear prism.[iv]


[i] Edward Hallett Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939; an Introduction to the Study of International Relations (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 4-5.

[ii] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Ideas in Context (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[iii] Richard E. Neustadt, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York : London: Free Press ; Collier Macmillan, 1986).

[iv] Some exemplary recent works in this vein include: Benoît Pelopidas, “The Oracles of Proliferation: How Experts Maintain a Biased Historical Reading That Limits Policy Innovation,” The Nonproliferation Review 18, no. 1 (March 2011): 297–314; Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012) and David Holloway’s forthcoming international history of nuclear weapons.

 

Response to H-Diplo/ISSF Forum on “What We Talk about When We Talk about Nuclear Weapons,” http://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/ISSF-Forum-2.pdf

Response by Benoît Pelopidas, University of Bristol, and CISAC Affiliate, Stanford University

Nuclear scholarship for whom?  Rethinking policy-relevance and the responsibility of nuclear scholars[1]

“It is the task of the public intellectual as I understand that vocation to keep the nuances alive. A public intellectual is not a paid publicist, not a spinner, not in the pocket of a narrowly defined purpose. It is, of course the temptation, another one, of the public intellectual to cozy up to that which he or she should be evaluating critically.” Jean Bethke Elshtain[2]

This symposium on “What We Talk about When We Talk about Nuclear weapons” provides a fruitful opportunity to rethink the contribution of historical and social scientific scholarship and to explore how those two disciplinary traditions create avenues for policy-relevant scholarship. However, surprisingly, it does not ask the crucial corollary questions: in the name of whom, and for whom, are we talking when we talk about nuclear weapons? In the name of whom, and to whom, should we be talking when we talk about nuclear weapons? The participants seem to assume that a necessary audience is and should be the U.S. policymaking elite, that the goal of policy-relevant scholarship is and should be to achieve policy change from the inside, and that the price to pay for access is worth it. I urge us all to rethink those assumptions.

It turns out there is a lot we do not talk about when we talk about nuclear weapons. For the purposes of this intervention, I leave aside the puzzling absence from the forum of archives outside the U.S. and Iraq and of scholarship in languages other than English.[3] Here, I want to focus on the issue of responsibility. Much has been written about the effects of advisers on nuclear weapons policy, but the question also needs to be asked the other way around:  how did the invention, institutionalization, and normalization of nuclear weapons affect the possibility of a credible public intellectual in the nuclear age? What kind of responsibility is attached to this role?[4] This is all the more urgent as the notion of responsibility appears four times in the forum, referring to variables and not to scholars and their mission, while the notion of ethics, and the general public as an audience, simply are absent.

I therefore urge us all to broaden our definition of policy-relevant scholarship and to rethink our responsibility vis-à-vis the public.[5] It must not be confined to communicating the existing terms of the policy debate within the beltway. In other words, I urge us to think beyond the narrow notions of deterrence and non-proliferation, to go back to the problem of nuclear vulnerability, and to engage with the public as well as policymakers beyond the terms of the policy debates of the day. I finally urge us to always be explicit about the ethical underpinnings of the policies we advocate and to resist the temptation of overconfidence.[6]

Why and how should we do that? We overestimate and underestimate our impact at the same time.

On the one hand, we dramatically overestimate our impact on nuclear weapons policy, meaning nuclear weapons policy making and nuclear weapons policy elites. Most often, we merely provide justifications for existing policies and political agendas – in spite of the efforts of the so-called “Wizards of Armageddon” to claim otherwise[7]– and conflate access with impact.[8] That would not be a problem if this did not lead most of us to make compromises in the name of this quest for impact on the elites. As a result, we rule out radical courses of action and give up talking about the ethical underpinnings of our recommendations in order to be able to provide answers we regard as acceptable to the existing elites. Nuclear scientists during the partial test ban debate offer an early example of this implicit bet on policy elites at the expense of the public and its potentially damaging consequences.[9] By choosing to sacrifice their larger ethical concerns and limit their discourse to technicalities, they were pursuing an uncontested scientific authority and direct influence over government policy. As a result, they did indeed lose their moral authority, gave up their arguments against fallout, and narrowed down the scope of acceptable dissent when the arms race was starting. However, this did not give them either the uncontested authority they were looking for or the influence they hoped to have within the government. Similarly, when we forget or choose to sacrifice our responsibility to the public in order to have an impact on elites, we can be sure of what we lose and what we deprive the public of, but we certainly cannot know what we gain from this bet.[10]

On the other hand, we underestimate our authority and responsibility vis-à-vis the general public at home and abroad and how our impact on this broader audience can have an indirect effect on the policy process. As a result, due to an exclusive focus on influencing a very constrained policy process, we unduly narrow the scope of policy options our audiences are exposed to and feed into the illusion that science alone can determine policy, thereby excluding wisdom and judgment.[11] This in turn constrains the scope of public discussion about nuclear weapons when we could act as imaginative sources of policy alternatives and voices to open a debate. Strangely enough, this attitude also assumes that having an impact on the public will not give you any traction on the policy process. This is an unwarranted assumption given the existing scholarship on how domestic protest groups in the U.S. led the country to enter three sets of arms control negotiations during the Cold War: the partial test ban treaty in the 1950s, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in the 1960s, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in the 1970s[12] as well as the broader scholarship on the impact of public protest on nuclear weapons policy worldwide.[13]

So, why should we choose to give up on our duty of circumspection and creativity to the public hoping that we will gain influence vis-à-vis elites? Since, in most cases, we do not, we would have to convince ourselves that access is impact but that impact on the public is not impact. We have to avoid that pitfall.

Given the well-documented dangers of overconfidence,[14] the amount of secrecy that still characterizes the nuclear world, the disputed nature of our core assumptions and findings, and the messages of overconfidence policymakers often send to the public, recognizing – even emphasizing – the perils of overconfidence becomes an ethical imperative.

Narrowing the realm of the discussion to nuclear non-proliferation and deterrence[15] as we currently do is focusing on two, and only two, possible policy responses to the broader problem of nuclear vulnerability (of peoples and societies and not only of the weapons). In a context where there is no foreseeable defense against a nuclear strike, where accidents can happen and escalation might be extremely fast, this is overconfident in the absence of any alternative course of action and obfuscates a whole set of ethical and political choices. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s confession to the British Ambassador to the U.S. in December 1959 that he would rather be atomized than communized is one of the most explicit statements of the ethical and political choices underlying any policy option in our world of global nuclear vulnerability.[16] For now, our conversation implicitly turns the problem into part of a pre-ordained solution made of deterrence and non-proliferation, which keeps the ethical choices on which it is based implicit. Instead, going back to the vulnerability problem, and resisting overconfidence in the ability of science alone to dictate policy, opens space for ethical and political debates that the public deserves.

If we do not speak to the public in a way which recognizes the limits and fragility of our knowledge while offering a variety of policy options and shedding light on the ethical underpinnings of any policy option, the public will see those issues as remote, technical, secret, and even irrelevant. Worse, it might become complacent about the danger. This is all the more necessary as the non-government organization (NGO) community, which was focusing on working with the public on nuclear arms control issues during the Cold War, has since then redirected its activities towards international organizations and like-minded officials within national governments.[17]

Constrained 'policy-relevant' scholarship not only deprives the public of informed commentary that has something to say about the ethical and political underpinnings of existing policy options, not to mention radical and unexplored ones;  it also deprives policymakers of an opportunity to consider ideas outside of their comfort zone.[18] By bolstering a discourse of constrained, 'realistic' policy alternatives, this kind of scholarship implants in the minds of elites the idea that radical alternatives are indeed impossible, even if they themselves might not believe that to be the case.

Finally, we should do better than that because we can. Probably no other community is better placed to engage with the public about the ethical and political bets on the future which underpin nuclear weapons policy, the danger of complacency, and new policies for the future. Indeed, science has distinguished itself from metaphysics by the awareness that its findings are always provisional and, as social scientists, we are well placed to understand the perils of overconfidence, as suggested above.[19]

Moreover, we know this is doable. Eric Schlosser gives us a recent example in his usefully synthetic book on the limits of safety of US nuclear weapons and carefully researched investigation of daily practices of workers in the nuclear weapons complex.[20] No overconfidence there and a refusal to replace the messiness of daily practices with the perfection of intellectual constructs and sincerity about his politics. Whether we agree with them or not is beside the point. Setting the boundaries of the ‘known unknowns’ and reminding the public that there always are ‘unknown unknowns’ is a contribution and it is possible. Refusal of overconfidence in the controllability of the social world can serve as a call for awareness of nuclear vulnerability. And Schlosser’s success shows that a lengthy book does not automatically deprive you of an audience.

Let’s turn this reconsideration of policy-relevant scholarship by historians and political scientists into the beginning of a broader conversation about the audiences, ethics, and politics of nuclear weapons scholarship. This is a call for lucidity regarding the responsibility of experts outside the government vis-à-vis the public in a democracy and the price of failing to be up to that task. We should provide a cautionary voice against the certainties uttered by policymakers, always beware of overconfidence in the ability of scientific findings alone to determine policy, shed light on the ethical and political underpinnings of the proposed choices, and devise alternatives beyond the existing ones. We should do so because we often misjudge our impact and its costs, because we can, and because we have to. We owe it to policymakers who are often more creative than we think they are, to ourselves as scholars rather than ideologues, and above all to the citizens of our nations.

 


[1] I am grateful to Barton J. Bernstein, Lyndon Burford, Campbell Craig, Lynn Eden, Ben Wilson, Maud Perrier, and the editor of H-Diplo, Diane Labrosse, for their insightful readings of and suggestions on previous drafts.

[3] Nuclear weapons have created transnational (if not global) ethical and political problems. As a result, a transnational or at least international approach is needed. It should start with the existing scholarship, even if it has not been translated, and the archives in every country. In this footnote, I will only give a few examples of scholarship in French and Italian which shed new light on specific nuclear weapons programs or nuclear histories. For instance, key insights on the origins of the French nuclear weapons program can be found in Dominique Mongin, La bombe atomique française 1945-1958. Bruxelles: Bruylant, 1997; Jean-Damien Pô, Les moyens de la puissance. Les activités militaires du CEA (1945-2000) (Paris : Ellipses, 2000), André Bendjebbar, Histoire secrète de la bombe atomique française (Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 2000) and Maurice Vaïsse, (ed.), La France et l’atome. Etudes d’histoire nucléaire (Brussels : Bruylant, 1994). On the Italian dealings with nuclear weapons, a landmark study is Leopoldo Nuti’s La sfida nucleare: la politica estera italiana e le armi atomiche, 1945-1991, (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2007).

[4] Two notable exceptions would be Michael Bess, Realism, Utopia and the Mushroom Cloud. Four Activist-Intellectuals and Their Strategies for Peace 1945-1993. Louise Weiss (France), Leo Szilard (USA), E. P. Thompson (England) and Danilo Dolci (Italy), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) and Rens van Munster and Casper Sylvest, Nuclear Realism: Global Political Thought after the Thermonuclear Revolution, (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

[5] For the purposes of this short essay, I do not distinguish between our students as citizens and the rest of the public.

[6] By overconfidence I mean the belief that science alone can dictate policy, without prior political and ethical judgments, and the illusion of control over the effects of one’s political actions.

[7] Most recently, Bruce Kuklick, Marc Trachtenberg, and Francis Gavin have convincingly developed this line of argument in recent years (Bruce Kuklick, Blind Oracles. Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006; Marc Trachtenberg, “Social Scientists and National Security Policymaking”, paper given at Notre Dame on April 22-23, 2010, available at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/trachtenberg/cv/notre%20dame(2010).pdf and Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft. History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012, 4) and Marcus Raskin’s November 1963 critique of the ‘Megadeath intellectuals’ remains a powerful expression of it. It is available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1963/nov/14/the-megadeath-intellectuals/. This limited impact on policy is not specific to nuclear experts and has been documented in other subfields of national security policy like counterterrorism, in particular after 9/11. See Lisa Stampnitzky, Disciplining Terror. How experts invented terrorism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[8] On this problem in the U.S. and the U. K., see Steve Smith, “Power and Truth. A Reply to William Wallace”, Review of International Studies 23:4, Oct. 1997, 511-512; Ken Booth, “Discussion: A Reply to William Wallace,” Review of International Studies 23:3, June 1997, 372-373 and Thomas J. Biersteker, “The ‘Peculiar Problems’ of Scholarly Engagement in the Policy Process,” International Studies Review 10:1, 2008, 173-174. Let us remember the widely accepted claim that Soviet scientists had more influence on Soviet leaders because in an unfree society, groups with access to leaders have less interference to overcome. See Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces. The Transnational Movement to end the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002 and Kai-Henrik Barth, “Catalysts of Change: Scientists as Transnational Arms Control Advocates in the 1980s,” in Osiris 21: Global Power Knowledge: Science and Technology in International Affairs, ed. John Krige and Kai-Henrik Barth, 182–206.

[9] A masterful demonstration of this is Paul Rubinson, “Crucified on the Cross of Atoms: Scientists, Politics and the Test Ban Treaty,” Diplomatic History, 35:3, April 2011.

[10] When Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich in 1938, Winston Churchill famously said “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” Memorial Addresses In The Congress of the United States, And Tributes In Eulogy of Sir Winston Churchill: Soldier - Statesman - Author - Orator - Leader. Washington D.C.: US government printing office, 1965, 11. That should painfully remind us that the ethical and political trade-offs we think we are operating under might be different from what we think. 

[11] Isaiah Berlin, “On Political Judgment” in The Sense of Reality. A Study in Ideas and Their History. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.

[12] Jeffrey W. Knopf, Domestic Society and International Cooperation. The Impact of Protest on US Arms Control Policy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[13] Lawrence Wittner, The Struggle against the Bomb. Stanford: Stanford University Press, (3 vol.), 1993, 1997 and 2003 and Confronting the Bomb. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2009 and Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces; Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. Cambridge, MA: 2003, 261.

[14] Donald McKenzie wrote about the ‘titanic effect’ in computer safety in “Computer-related Accidental Death: An Empirical Exploration,” Science and Public Policy 24:1, 1994. “The safer a system is believed to be, the more catastrophic the accidents to which it is subject.” This notion has recently been applied in the context of nuclear weapons safety and security by Eric Schlosser in Command and Control, New York: Allen Lane, 2013, 313; Dominic D. P. Johnson links overconfidence to the breakout of war in Overconfidence and War. The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004 and the heuristic biases producing overconfidence are described in Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, New York: Penguin, 2011, part III.

[15] For the purposes of this discussion, I put “crisis management” under the heading of deterrence.

[16] Quoted in Ira Chernus, Apocalypse Management. Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2008, 186.

[17] Jeffrey W. Knopf, “NGOs, Social Movements and Arms Control,” in Robert E. Williams and Paul R. Viotti, (eds.) Arms Control: History, Theory, and Policy. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012.

[18] We know how constrained and self-censored the inner circles of nuclear weapons policy are. As George Perkovich recently noted: “the pressures to conform to orthodoxy stifle expression of alternate views when one is operating within the system.” George Perkovich, “Do unto Others. Towards a Defensible Nuclear Policy,” http://carnegieendowment.org/files/do_unto_others.pdf, Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013, 30.

[19] See footnote 14.

[20] Schlosser, Command and Control.