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Mathematical Models, Rational Choice, and the Search for Cold War Culture

Paul Erickson
Isis
Vol. 101, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 386-392
DOI: 10.1086/653105
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/653105
Page Count: 7
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Mathematical Models, Rational Choice, and the Search for Cold War Culture
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Abstract

ABSTRACT A key feature of the social, behavioral, and biological sciences after World War II has been the widespread adoption of new mathematical techniques drawn from cybernetics, information theory, and theories of rational choice. Historians of science have typically sought to explain this adoption either by reference to military patronage, or to a characteristic Cold War culture or discursive framework strongly shaped by the concerns of national security. This essay explores several episodes in the history of game theory—a mathematical theory of rational choice—that demonstrate the limits of such explanations. Military funding was indeed critical to game theory's early development in the 1940s. However, the theory's subsequent spread across disciplines ranging from political science to evolutionary biology was the result of a diverse collection of debates about the nature of “rationality” and “choice” that marked the Cold War era. These debates are not easily reduced to the national security imperatives that have been the focus of much historiography to date.

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