Tag Archives: game theory

Thomas Schelling

There was a time, shortly after the first atomic bomb was exploded, when there was some journalistic speculation about whether the earth’s atmosphere had a limited tolerance to nuclear fission; the idea was bruited about that a mighty chain reaction might destroy the earth’s atmosphere when some critical number of bombs had already been exploded. Someone proposed that, if this were true and if we could calculate with accuracy that critical level of tolerance, we might neutralize atomic weapons for all time by a deliberate program of openly and dramatically exploding n – 1 bombs.

Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1960, p. 138

Bertrand Russell

Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls ‘brinkmanship’. This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practised by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called ‘Chicken!’. It is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves from the white line before the other, the other, as he passes, shouts ‘Chicken!’, and the one who has swerved becomes an object of contempt. As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked. But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage, and only the statesmen on the other side are reprehensible.

Bertrand Russell, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, 1959, London, p. 30

Jon Elster

Are the conclusions true? Before I address this issue, I want to observe that it is not clear that they are always intended to be true, that is, to correspond to the actual world. Rather, they sometimes represent a form of science fiction—an analysis of the action and interaction of ideally rational agents, who have never existed and never will. The analysis of ever-more-refined forms of strategic equilibria, for instance, is hardly motivated by a desire to explain or predict the behaviour of actual individuals. Rather, the motivation seems to be an aesthetic one. Two of the most accomplished equilibria theorists, Reinhart Selten and Ariel Rubinstein, have made it quite clear that they do not believe their models have anything to say about the real world. When addressing the workings of the latter, they use some variety of behavioural economics or bounded rationality. To cite another example, social choice theory—the axiomatic study of voting mechanisms—became at one point so mathematically convoluted and so obviously irrelevant to the study of actual politics that one of the most prominent journals in economics, Econometrica, imposed a moratorium on articles in this area.

An interesting question in the psychology and sociology of science is how many secret practitioners there are of economic science fiction—hiding either from themselves or from others the fact that this is indeed what they are practicing. Inventing ingenious mathematical models is a well-paid activity, but except for the likes of Selten and Rubinstein payment will be forthcoming only if the activity can also be claimed to be relevant; hence the incentive for either self-deception or deception. To raise this question might seem out of bounds for academic discourse, but I do not see why it should be. Beyond a certain point, academic norms of politeness ought to be discarded.

Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Cambridge, 2007, p. 461